gdrv_sm.jpgby Scott Benson

The New England Patriots clinched a playoff spot today – and their fourth consecutive AFC Eastern Division title – with a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire 24-21 road win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

With a brilliant 27 yard touchdown dash, Laurence Maroney gave the Patriots a 10 point lead with just over four and a half minutes left. But the game came down to a booth replay of a David Garrard fumble with the ball at midfield, the clock at 1:55, and the tying field goal just a first down or two away.

The call went to New England – officials ruled correctly that Garrard had fumbled, not passed (his arm was moving back, not forward), when stripped from behind by Jarvis Green. Rodney Harrison’s recovery stood, and a happy Patriots team celebrated, led by its coaching staff.

The Patriots dominated time of possession all day, and they rolled up more than 350 yards of offense on the NFL’s second best defense (in yards allowed). But one fluke play, and one big pass off a rollout, were all the tenacious Jags needed to keep the game in doubt to the end.

Still, Maroney’s fourth-quarter score should have ended their day, but Jacksonville immediately roared up the field on a suddenly soft Patriots defense. They got the quick score they needed when Garrard hit Matt Jones, and nobody else did. The rangy receiver slipped Ellis Hobbs and others for a 33 yard score.

The Jags then curiously kicked deep, but their gamble paid off when the Pats took a quick three and out (maybe its not a gamble with that defense) and punted the ball back to Jacksonville at their own 45, with a full two minutes left. On the next play, Green scrambled through a gauntlet of lineman for the deciding shot on Garrard, who was struggling to find an open receiver as he was hit. Game (finally) over.

Tom Brady played like an MVP for the Patriots, directing a mostly spread offense that attacked the Jags all-world front with quick, short passes and judicious runs, including TEN by the quarterback himself (most important were a couple of early quarterback sneaks). The Pats used the quick, low-risk passing as an extension of its running game, and they controlled the ball a full fifteen minutes longer than the Jags. And for the second week in a row, Brady was at the center of an offense that did NOT turn the ball over.

For most of the game, Brady was in total command, but as the second half progressed, Jacksonville moved tighter to the line and appeared to take away the short passes the Pats had used to move the chains. Brady was forced to hold on to the ball and look for longer routes, with predictable results, though credit here must go for ball protection. It could have been worse, is my point. The Jacksonville crowd was in a frenzy (the toughest road crowd this year), and the Patriots began to take penalties and move backwards.

But as he so often does, Brady produced one more drive in the face of adversity, a 68 yard fourth quarter march that culminated in Maroney’s touchdown run, and a seemingly secure ten point lead. The rookie returned to the lineup with a bang, including when he went nose to nose with the Jacksonville front to bang out a couple of first downs. But it was his scoring burst – a play that should have ended the game – that brought some much needed excitement back to the Pats buttoned-down offense.

Maroney was sprung on an effective block by fellow rookie David Thomas, who was Burt Ward to Brady’s Adam West today. Thomas made a NFL Films style diving touchdown catch of a perfectly thrown Brady 22 yarder in the third, taking care to cradle the ball away from the ground to prove the catch. The first TD of his career came only three plays after he took a short Brady pass and raced 36 yards, beautifully up the left sideline, to set up his own score.

Sue me if I’m getting kind of excited about some of the Patriots young players, even for this year. Thomas has grabbed a bucket and started bailing serious water these last two weeks. James Sanders is stepping up and making a handful of plays a game. Last week its was Mays and Woods. How about Tully Banta Cain, long a backup and special teamer, flashing a real threat on the edge (five tackles and consistent pressure in the backfield again)?

Unfortunately, Banta Cain will probably be remembered today for a hideous second quarter gaffe that cost the Patriots a few red faces and – even worse – six points. Just after the Patriots had taken an early 3-0 lead on a winding, twisting 48 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski (nice hold by Matt Cassel on what proved to be the winning margin), the Jags took the ball on their own 26 and handed it to dangerous sparkplug Maurice Jones-Drew.

Ty Warren happened to make good penetration on the play, and kicked his man back into the tiny Drew, who instantly went to the ground. Both Banta Cain and veteran safety Artrell Hawkins assumed the little bastard was down, which of course he wasn’t. They let him up. Next thing you know he’s racing past a diving (and limited) Harrison, all the way to the end zone. 74 yards on what should have been one or two. Shameful.

The Patriots had really outplayed the Jags in every way to that point, and they were behind. But as noted above, it was Brady’s day. He took the ball with eight minutes left in the first half and marched the Pats on a 14 play, 82 yard drive that ate more than 7:20 of game clock. It was one of the best drives of the year, and it was all Brady. The chains just kept moving, five and six yards at a time. One to Graham, one to Faulk, one to Brown, one to Gaffney, and what the hell, here’s one for Bam Childress too. Corey Dillon did the honors with a thrust from the 1, behind the right side of the Pats line. New England had the lead again.

From there out, the teams traded touchdowns. The Pats struck with Thomas on their first drive of the second half (another corker – 78 yards on 7 plays), and suddenly, the Pats had a 10 point lead. The Jags fought back, driving into New England territory, but the Pats defense stiffened and Josh Scobee missed a 53 yard field goal attempt.

The Pats then went on a field goal drive of their own (highlighted by a nice catch by Daniel Graham), but Gostkowski’s 49 yarder (from the left hash) sailed just left of the post, and the chance to extend the lead was lost.

The Jags made it hurt right away, with some help from the Patriots.

Garrard faded back to pass under heavy rush by Banta Cain and Richard Seymour, and the pressured throw sailed straight to Mike Vrabel, who pulled it in for the first turnover of the afternoon. But Seymour laid an unnecessary late shot on Garrard, and the personal foul put the ball back in the mobile quarterback’s hands.

On the next play, Garrard rolled away from the pressure, and found a waiting Ernest Wilford – well behind Asante Samuel – inside the Pats 10 yard line. The 41 yard completion set up a short TD plunge by Drew, and the lead was cut back to three.

But Brady and Maroney took over after a brief flurry of punts, and – after their weakest moments allowed Jones to score – the Patriots defense came back to make a turnover stick and save New England from a last minute disaster.

What does it all mean?

It means that the Pats have another division crown, and another playoff berth. It also means that for all of today’s ups and downs, the Patriots came into a tough road stadium against a desperate team and found a way to win, even after shooting themselves in the foot at least twice. For the second week in a row, they’ve appropriately answered the clarion call of the approaching playoffs.

For all the changes, for all the defections, for all the angst internal and external – they’re 11-4, and a division winner, and a playoff invitee. And they may just be playing their best football of the season.