by Scott Benson

The Patriots have advanced to their second straight AFC championship game (and their fifth of this decade), and here’s all the links for last night’s 31-20 divisional round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The following thoughts are also humbly offered:

*Tough week for pundits of all stripes. The physical Jaguars were supposed to be able to pound the ball, make no mistakes, and outmuscle the Patriots on the line of scrimmage(s). New England decisively outdid Jacksonville in all three areas.

*Thanks in large part to the best football player we’ve ever seen, and likely ever will see. More on this later.

*David Garrard found wide open spaces in the intermediate areas of the Pats secondary, and with this, the Jags were able to threaten with methodical and productive drives early. Never more so when they drove 95 yards for the tying score after being pinned near their own goal line. The Pats secondary played well off the Jax receivers, I suppose to ward off the big play, but I was confused by that strategy, given that Ernest Wilford, Matt Jones and Marcedes Lewis don’t seem the types to get behind anybody. Whatever the reason, the Patriots defensive backs were rarely in the vicinity of Garrard’s passes, and when they were, they could not make a play. The same held true for New England pass rushers. For awhile there, the only thing they did well was stop the run – the one thing they weren’t supposed to do.

*But there’s the bottom line. After getting chewed up for most of the first thirty minutes, the Pats defense patched together (with the help of a crucial Jacksonville drop or two) two straight red-zone stops in the second half, limiting the Jags to six useless points despite nearly eleven minutes of possession. Not the best use of your time when you’re down by seven, then eleven points. Then on Jacksonville’s last meaningful possession, New England’s veteran defense forced a turnover to ice the game (after starting it with a critical Ty Warren strip that set up a TD).  Does that count for anything? Naturally, Mike Felger is in the papers this morning fretting about what lies ahead for the undefeated Pats and their raggedy defense. He wants us to “readjust” what we think of the team, because the defense is only making “just enough” plays to win. Yeah, all right. That seems like a problem, that ‘making just enough plays to win’ thing.

*I don’t even want to try to write about Tom Brady anymore. What do you say? Now he holds the record for highest completion percentage in a playoff or regular season game (92.9%). With only one catch from Randy Moss, by the way. In my living room, we rarely panic because THE PATRIOTS HAVE TOM BRADY. Those five words seem to be the answer to any problem. He was astonishing, again, and I don’t know what we ever did to deserve this.

*Correct me if I’m wrong, but did the Jaguars just try to beat Tom Brady by giving him the underneath receivers and forcing him to make error-free choices and accurate throws? I know, that cracks me up too. They weren’t going to beat the Patriots in a hundred years with that plan.

*I’ll give them credit for one thing – they took Randy Moss out of the passing game, but good. But here’s the thing – they didn’t take him out of The Game, as the high-profile all-pro receiver applied himself to some low-profile lunch-pail blocking that helped the Patriots stay undefeated. Even his one catch was a fourth-down conversion that extended the Pats first TD drive of the night.

*What a day for the Whipping Boys. I’ve occupied myself this season (as have others) with occasional fretting about production from players like Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson, by my God, those two were like full-grown men out there last night. The Patriots wouldn’t have won without them.

*Maroney took a screen for 33 yards on the Pats first possession and never stopped running all night. By himself, he nearly doubled the rushing output of the highly-touted Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined (122 to 66). Astounding. There was a time when he disappeared from the New England attack this season, but now with everything on the line, he’s been one of the Patriots’ best players. And we can argue this all day, but I’m going to say it anyway – there’s something different about him lately. Maybe it’s simply confidence from now having what Bill Parcells used to call “a few pelts”. He’s now a bloodthirsty animal on any short-yardage situation, especially around the goal line, and I now officially declare an end to any further talk of “the Patriots don’t/won’t/can’t run, that’s not what they DO.” Especially from me.

*Jacksonville’s defensive game plan opened the middle of the field for Watson, who grabbed two red-zone touchdowns from Brady. The first one was a wonder, as Watson adjusted mid-route to snare a bullet that went behind the back of the coverage. I was thrilled by this – that took real instincts and understanding of what Brady would do in that situation, and Watson passed the test with glorious, flying colors. He later scored the team’s final TD of the night with another slick grab of a tight Brady throw. Like Maroney, there were times this year when Watson could hardly be found, but he was ten fett tall when Brady and the Patriots needed him last night. Somebody pinch me.

*Give me one for Wes Welker while you’re at it. Again, what have we done to deserve this? He was quieted in the first half, but in the second, he was everywhere, sitting down in the center of the secondary for more of his patented drive-extenders, then racing around right end with a quirky reverse with Maroney that left Brady sealing off the edge with a block. Again, the Jags thought their best chance to win was to make Wes Welker beat them with third down catches underneath their coverage? Why did they think this would work?

*Welker scored on a delightful bit of trickery to close out the Pats first drive of the second half. The Pats appeared to go with the direct snap to Kevin Faulk,long a staple of the New England red zone attack, and Brady carried out his usual “they snapped it over my head!” fake that is pivotal to allowing Faulk to disappear into the pile without being detected. Instead, for the first time I can remember, the ball was actually snapped to Brady, who hid it beautfully from the defense before firing a shot to Welker through an opening roughly the size of a business envelope. I especially love this play because the next time the Patriots call that direct snap to Faulk, he will score easily.

*Before I forget, how about that Patriots offensive line? Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur returned, and along with dominating the ballyhooed Jags line in the running game, they made damn sure Jacksonville would get no pass rush by sending just four. That may not be as noticeable as the holes they opened for Maroney (and sometimes Faulk), but it was an important detail.

*You know who else shouldn’t be forgotten? Donte Stallworth. He’s been replaced in the starting offense by Jabar (Mr. January) Gaffney, and Pats fans have seen less and less of him ever since. Yet he made two enormous fourth quarter catches (including a 53 yarder when he got behind everybody) that allowed the Pats to add a field goal and chew up the clock.

*Oddly, the Patriots really were outplayed on special teams, as Chad Jackson went nowhere on returns and Stephen Gostkowski killed a seven minute drive to close out the first half by badly missing a 35 yarder to the right. In fairness, he later made a 35 yarder that put the Jags down by two scores with seven minutes to play, and the Pats coverage units held down Jones-Drew throughout. There was some early fussing over whether Bill Belichick was slow with the challenge flag on Jacksonville’s first touchdown, but there was no way that tape was going to provide conclusive evidence that Garrard threw the TD pass after his knee hit the ground. From where I was sitting, that would have been a loss of a challenge and a waste of a time out.

*And so now, we wait. Is the long-anticipated Pats-Colts rematch up next? I’m inclined to root for the Chargers today, because I really like the thought of Phillip Rivers in an AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. At the end of the day, though, I’m expecting just what we saw last night: the kids are dismissed to eat at the kids table, while the grown ups adjourn to the dining room, and the spoils.