Its that time of year, a new season as they say. The NFL playoffs are upon us once again. And its this time of year the Patriots have excelled at in three of the last four season. Its for that reason there seems to be an expectation amongst the fans and media of this team that exceed the way they performed in the regular season, on the whole. Those expectations may well be right. We’ll begin to find out Saturday night in Foxboro.
To start off with, the Patriots will have to face a tough, underrated Jacksonville team that very well may be capable of pulling off the stunner. Jacksonville won twelve games this season, two more than the Patriots. They beat three other playoff teams along the way, one more than the Patriots beat. They are an up and coming team that is finally ready for the big stage after years of slow growth. It won’t be easy for New England.
THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
The Patriots seem to have run better up the middle this year than they have outside. Corey Dillon appears at times to be still nursing an injury and has not looked that good on outside runs since very early in the year. That, unfortunately for the Patriots, is not a good recipe against Jacksonville as they are strongest in the middle. Right up the middle you’ll find four of Jacksonville’s best players in tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson and linebackers Mike Peterson and Daryl Smith (though Peterson is listed as questionable for the game). These guys are big, physical players who can tackle runners cold and manhandle blockers. They really control the line of scrimmage. Its not going to be easy for the Pats to line up on early downs and run against these guys.
But on short yardage, with extra blockers in like Tom Ashworth or Ben Watson in the backfield, they should be able to make some yardage, or at least the amounts they need. On early downs, perhaps spreading it out and doing some lead draws will help create some plays that can keep the down and distance manageable, but don’t look for Jacksonville, who only gave up four rushing touchdowns the entire season, to be the type of team you can run down their throats. That just isn’t going to happen. The Patriots haven’t been all that good a rushing team anyways this year.
So, they’re going to have to throw it some in less than ideal conditions. Here too, Jacksonville presents problems, having given up only an average of 184 yards a game in the air and sacking the quarterback 47 times. They feature a top-notch corner in Rashean Mathis. The other corner, Kenny Wright, is not nearly as good and the Patriots can take advantage of him. They have a solid nickle corner in veteran Terry Cousin. At safety, All-Pro Donovan Darius was lost for the year and that has left the crew at that position mediocre overall, but rookie Gerald Sensabaugh is a phenomenal athlete whose been playing well of late. The Jaguars pass rush only makes things tougher, as they have six guys with at least four sacks. Big offseason acquisition Reggie Hayward has come through for them as a pass rusher with eight and a half sacks.
No matter what, this is not going to be an easy game for the Patriots to move the ball. They should be able to make some plays by keeping things balanced. Some screens, some running, hitting the tight ends for some plays, taking advantage of Wright here and there. But its unlikely they’ll move up and down the field, so field position will be critical. They’ll need to be careful with the ball and not make mistakes in their own end. They should avoid attempting extra long field goals early or going for it on fourth down and punt and play defense instead. They should try to keep Jacksonville’s defense off balance by throwing a bit on first down. If they can do that, they may crack twenty points, which should be enough.
THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Jaguars aren’t as good on offense as they are on defense. Reportedly, they’ll be starting Byron Leftwich, whose been out since November to injury. It remains to be seen how effective he’ll be coming off injury and without having played at all lately. But when he’s on his game, Leftwich can burn you from any part of the field with his big arm as they found out in 2003 when he hit a couple big plays on them.
If Leftwich’s backup comes in, David Garrard, he can be effective as well. He is smart, plays safe with the football and can move a bit better than Leftwich and make plays with his feet. He can be an effective game manager if Jacksonville decides Leftwich isn’t ready after a few series and its a close game.
Jacksonville of course has dangerous receivers with Jimmy Smith, one of the best of all time, the dangerous red zone receiver and big Ernest Wilford, as well as some good younger guys in Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, both huge receivers that could cause problems for the Patriots smaller defensive backs.
But in the end, Jacksonville will probably try to grind this game out a bit on the ground. They do have four capable to very good backs in Fred Taylor, Greg Jones, Alvin Pearman and LaBrandon Toefield, who had over 100 yards last week. Forunately for the Patriots, the Jaguars offensive line is average at best, particularly with one of their best linemen, Brad Meester, out for the year in the middle of the line. The way the Patriots front seven played towards the end of the year, I would expect them to be able to keep the Jaguars running game relatively in check, though the Jaguars may grind out some plays there as well.
On special teams, the Jags are average. Their kicker, Josh Scobee, has a big leg, but can be inconsistent. They are average punting and covering the ball. They do have one returner capable of breaking a big on to watch out for in Derrick Winbush.
The Jaguars generally don’t turn the ball over much, though in their first prime time playoff appearance with this group of players, all bets are off and it remains to be seen how they react to that. But if they keep it a close game well into the second half, watch out as they’ll gain confidence and could sneak away with a win at the end. I do expect the Patriots to make just barely enough plays to pull this one out, however. They may have to come from behind and it’ll be anything but easy facing a defense like this and a offense that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but in the end they make the plays when it counts and have the experience to figure out how to pull out a win against a younger team. They win 20-16.