Remember how I said in my game preview Thursday that the Jaguars' willingness to give the Patriots bulletin-board material made me wonder what else they weren't getting? Today a post by Denton at Surviving Grady made me realize I should've been even more worried about those boys.
He (Jags defensive lineman Paul Spicer) used some tape, wood and elbow grease and -- presto! -- there it was. A sledgehammer. A freaking sledgehammer. The sledgehammer became a week-long symbol for the Jaguars leading up to their game against New England. The Jaguars were going to pound some damn heads.
Then came the best part of the story: Spicer brought his spanking-new sledgehammer onto the team charter flight here. There have been NFL players who brought guns and mistresses on team flights, but never a sledgehammer. How exactly do you pack a sledgehammer, anyway? Is that a carry-on?
In the minutes prior to the divisional game, which would end with New England going to 17-0, the entire Jaguars team made a motion like they were pounding a sledgehammer into the ground of Gillette Stadium. They were really buying into this.
Okay. There are a couple of questions I have about this. Number one, the one the article cited by Denton asked--how does one get a sledgehammer onto an airplane, even if it is a charter flight? Especially if one is a gigantic professional football player? Another question: why did Spicer have to fashion a sledgehammer himself out of wood and adhesives? Is he not a highly paid professional football player? Can he not buy a real sledgehammer instead? Presumably if airport security lets a handmade sledgehammer onto a flight, a real sledgehammer won't be too much more of a security risk.
And yes, I know how charming a story it might have been if the plucky Jaguars and their homemade sledgehammer had managed to upset the mighty Patriots, but sadly for pretty much everyone outside New England, this year's Patriots are here to ruin storylines like that with clinical football precision.
The Defense Lays the Smack Down
The Jaguars and their improvised demolition equipment gave the Patriots a run for their money for the first half of the game, which was tied at 14 by halftime. At the time, still fearing the upset, I was hyperventilating, but in retrospect, there were a couple of pieces of luck that had brought the Jaguars even that close. One was, of course, the missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, a simple lack of execution by the special teams unit that would've made it 17-14.
Another was that the desperate fling by David Garrard from his knee at the end of the Jags' opening drive found a receiver in the end zone, and that it also wasn't challenged by Bill Belichick, who had the red flag out as the Jags lined up for the PAT but decided to stick it back in his sock.
Though it worked out in his favor, Garrard's last-second heave might also have gone the other way. And the next time he didn't protect the football--when Ty Warren knocked one of his own linemen into him on the next drive and the ball came loose--he paid for it with a turnover rather than profiting with a touchdown. Mike Vrabel fell on the ball, and moments later the Patriots capitalized with a short power run from Lawrence Maroney to make it 14-7.
As many predicted prior to the game, the Patriots defense looked overmatched, at least at first, by the Jags' power running game. Fred Taylor, especially, physically overpowered the Pats in the first half. It was also a nice piece of game-planning by Del Rio to come out throwing, which in turn depended on a lot of truly commendable execution from Garrard. When they switched back to the run after burning the Patriots on the pass, they had the Pats back on their heels. At least, for a little while.
But as we saw with the Giants, the Jags couldn't keep up with the Patriots through 60 minutes of football, primarily because of the admirable stamina of the "old and slow" Patriots defense.
They showed incredible tenacity when it came to keeping up with the Jacksonville ground attack; time and again, I saw someone for whom the running back was at least their second assignment make the stop. Especially early on, Rodney Harrison or Tedy Bruschi would provide the last line of defense, a testament to their veteran expertise and all-around heads-up play. Fred Taylor ran all over the Pats defense in the first half, but he also never really broke away.
The Pats defense eventually solved Garrard, too, as evidenced by Rodney Harrison's smooth-handed interception in the fourth quarter to seal the game. Quick fun fact when it comes to Rodney Harrison and interceptions: according to the Boston Globe, Rodney became the first player in history this season to amass 30 interceptions (33) and 30 sacks (30.5). He looked it on that play, too, jumping the receiver's route without the slightest hesitation, and snatching up the ball with confidence.
The Offense is Picture-Perfect
But while the defense was the key, it also shouldn't be overlooked that the Patriots' offense put on a clinic last night. To quote Patriots broadcaster Gil Santos, "the numbers are astonishing" when it comes to Tom Brady: 26 completions in 28 passing attempts, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His Statue of Liberty play to open scoring in the second half was a thing of beauty, and probably, as Kristen pointed out, the turning point of the game.
But another stat of Brady's stands out for different reasons: 262 total yards passing. Not bad by any stretch, but not the kind of yardage you might expect a record-breaking quarterback to have amassed in a relatively high-scoring game. Instead, the Patriots stayed away from their typical passing approach on many crucial downs, and running by Maroney made more big plays than Brady's arm. This perhaps unexpected mix of offense was more than the Jaguars could keep up with, especially with the Patriots executing even trick plays with flawless precision.
When the passing game came into play, it saw contributions from members of the roster whose names haven't been called with the most frequency this season. Benjamin Watson made two touchdown catches, including a one-handed grab on a bullet from Brady for the Pats' first score. This was incredible to see coming from a man who so often earns my father's scornful "hands like feet" designation. Dante Stallworth, too, took over Randy Moss's responsibilities as the deep threat with aplomb. Moss, meanwhile, contributed most to the game not when making leaping grabs but when blocking for Maroney; Jabar Gaffney, too, helped spring running teammates with crucial blocks.
To review: the highest-flying passing offense in the history of the league emphasized the running game this time around, and its marquee quarterback and wide receiver stepped aside for key contributions from relatively unsung players. Scary. And more proof than ever before that Bill Belichick has truly hit on something special when it comes to his method of managing players, if he can inspire the kinds of performances that we saw last night.
Another Victory for the Belichick Method
I think the first element that makes his strategy successful is the fact that there is no such thing as a minor role or an unimportant player in his system. Every player is expected to fulfill his role every week, regardless of his place on the depth chart. Thus when he needs to switch for strategic reasons away from the Brady-Moss Show, he can do so with success.
The second key to Belichick's player-management system that I think makes them so successful is the way he takes care of the linear, rational side of the game for his players so completely. He expects them to understand their options and roles in any given situation and to make split-second decisions during games, but when it comes to managing events over any bigger time frame than that, he takes it completely off their hands, freeing them to focus on their individual roles.
A third element of Belichick's success is that he focuses on the fundamentals with his players. All of his receivers are expected to make crucial catches in key situations, not just Randy Moss and Wes Welker. His running backs are expected to step up and produce positive yardage when necessary, even if the Patriots spend 9 out of every 10 snaps in some games passing. Similarly, the offensive linemen are expected to enact passing and running attack techniques with equal ease; the defense is expected to stop the best running offense in the league, and pick off its perhaps underrated quarterback when the situation calls for it. In the Sports Illustrated profile on the Jaguars last week, Del Rio praised Garrard's ability to execute plays that haven't been called for a while in practice or haven't been talked about more than once. Belichick takes this ability as a given--in all of his players.
Finally, every man on the roster, 1 through 53, has not only a role and an understanding of that role on the team, but the physical stamina to perform in that role for a full 60 minutes of football. It's been amazing to me to watch, now that Belichick's been drumming it into this year's Patriots squad, how many professional football teams there are out there that let up after 45, 50, even 55 minutes. And yet we've played, and beaten, several teams this year in exactly that way.
The conditioning issue aside, I do often wonder how opponents can really game-plan for Bill Belichick's Patriots. Even the supposed weaknesses of the team don't seem so weak all of a sudden if the head coach's game plan dictates it. Whatever you assume he's going to do, Bill Belichick knows what you're going to assume, and then does the opposite, through a system of player development that makes it possible for the team to do the opposite of its natural strengths, and still win the game.
That's why his team is now 17-0, and playing for the conference championship next week, for the fifth time in 7 years.