Someone has to play the undefeated Patriots sooner or later in the playoffs so here come the fearless Jacksonville Jaguars. They head into their divisional-round matchup against New England with a 5-3 record vs. playoff teams. But, of course, they're facing a Patriots team that is 6-0 against those participating in the postseason.
Jacksonville is a physical team that hit its stride as a scoring offense over the last six regular-season games and the playoff win over Pittsburgh. The Jaguars believe they can line up with any team and run the ball. They would like to come into Foxboro and call 30 to 35 run plays and expect to average 4.5 yards per carry. That could put them in a position to win in the fourth quarter.
The challenge for coach Jack Del Rio isn't averaging over 4 yards a carry -- the Patriots already allow 4.4 per run -- but it is the ability to stick with the running game if his team gets behind by double digits. The Patriots score early and often and thus get most teams to become one-dimensional. Their opponents average 22 rushing attempts a game compared to 33 passes.
The Patriots come in undefeated, and many are quick to point out that they may have more pressure on them because of that. But no team pursuing an undefeated season has handled the mounting pressure better than New England has.
I talked with a number of Patriots players, coaches and front office people throughout the season, and never did they lose sight of the ultimate goal. Not only are the Patriots 6-0 against playoff teams, but they averaged 39 points a game against them. Their margin of victory against half the teams in the playoffs is 20 points.
Del Rio knows the numbers, but he has done a masterful job of building a football team that couldn't care less about the stats. The Jaguars went into Pittsburgh twice this season and won both times -- something no team had done in the Steelers' 75-year history.
Del Rio will have his team prepared to do something no one else has been able to do in 2007 -- beat the New England Patriots. A tall order, to say the least.
1. Patriots WR Randy Moss vs. Jaguars CB Rashean Mathis: Moss wins rebounds, gets vertical and runs more inside routes than most believe he does. There will be times when Mathis will have him alone, and it will not go unnoticed by Brady.
2. Patriots WR Wes Welker vs. Jaguars FS Reggie Nelson: Nelson is talented but is in over his head in this matchup. He may get a big-time hit or two on Welker for some 'wow' factor, but in the end Welker will get close to 10 receptions. If Nelson goes over the top to help on Moss, Welker will beat the nickel back all day.
3. Patriots RG Stephen Neal vs. Jaguars DT Jon Henderson: Henderson, who could have returned to the lineup last week, will need to collapse the pocket from the inside. Brady loves to step up and throw right where Henderson should be bull-rushing Neal. Neal will battle but he also needs Brady to move around a bit in the pocket.
4. Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Jaguars OC Brad Meester: The Jags want to run the ball and it starts with controlling the nose tackle in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. If Meester needs constant help on Wilfork, the Patriots will have a free defender to stop the run. Meester is an underrated center but he's up against an all-pro nose tackle coming off a week's rest. The edge goes to Wilfork.
5. Patriots RDE Richard Seymour vs. Jaguars LT Kalif Barnes: Barnes is a much improved tackle but he is lined up against a great DE in Seymour. Seymour has not been as productive this season as in years past but I expect a big postseason from him. Barnes may get caught for a holding call or two in this matchup.
When the Patriots have the ball
There are no secrets when the Patriots take the field on offense. They love the personnel group of three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back, and they attack with the passing game. There is no chance the Jaguars will drop a safety down in the box, meaning there are running opportunities to be had. If weather conditions dictate more running, the Patriots' late-season increase in run calls will have prepared them. Brady has told me a few times that his offseason training over the past few years has given him the arm strength to throw through the wind. His 50 touchdown passes speaks for itself.
Anytime Brady feels Moss is in a single-coverage situation -- whether it is man or zone -- he will get the ball to him. He knows Welker will hold off the safety in the slot, but if the safety ever jumps outside and leaves Welker one-on-one with the nickel back, Welker becomes the primary target. His league-leading 112 receptions this season should tell you teams are willing to take their chances with Welker. But as one coach told me, "It is just a slower death letting Brady read down to Welker instead of going up top to Randy."
The backside receiver package does not get ignored by Brady. Donte' Stallworth, Ben Watson and Jabar Gaffney have 118 receptions and 14 touchdowns between them so any radical rolled coverage to the big two on the front side will have Brady turn backside in a flash. If the Jags get those big healthy pass drops they are going to need to hold off all the route combinations, then Kevin Faulk will kill the Jags out of the backfield. Faulk has 47 receptions, and he and Brady connect so many times in critical third-and-short situations, using a circle route out of the backfield.
The Patriots threw 568 passes this season -- an average of 36 a game -- and were only credited with 32 drops by the receivers. That is only two drops per game. Brady only threw eight interceptions all year and was sacked once every 28 pass attempts. They are the best passing machine in the history of the NFL and the Jags will have to play perfect football.
When the Jaguars have the ball
If the Jaguars defeat the Patriots under the leadership of David Garrard, then Rio's preseason decision to go with the young quarterback will prove to have been the NFL's best of the year. Del Rio was at the same crossroads Bill Belichick was when he decided to go with a sixth-round draft pick named Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe. Del Rio went with Garrard -- a fourth-round pick -- over incumbent starter Byron Leftwich. Two defensive-minded coaches that went with the best player. Sounds simple, but not everyone can pull the trigger on that type of move.
Jacksonville would love drives of 10 plays or more that will eat up clock and end in touchdowns, but that's too much to ask in a game like this. Garrard is going to have to make a number of special plays just to keep his team in the game. Three or four deep balls down the sidelines to Reggie Williams or Matt Jones when New England has a run defense called on first down will help. Then Garrard is going to have to move the chains three or four more times with his feet, but that means avoiding linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel -- one of whom will have an eye on Garrard on all third downs. Next, Fred Taylor and or Maurice Jones Drew are going to have to deliver a run or two over 40 yards to take the pressure off a long drive. Taylor already has an 80-yard run and Jones-Drew has a 57-yard run in the books this season, so they can do it.
New England will have the Belichick scheme all set to make life tough on Garrard. The simpler the plan for Jacksonville, the better for Garrard. The pass rush will come from everywhere, and he needs to get the ball out quickly or risk reading a coverage wrong and throwing a pick or taking a sack. The noise will be a negative factor for the Jacksonville offense.
It is going to be a very physical game, and the Jaguars are not going to go away at the first sign of trouble. But in the end, the Patriots are going to put 35 points on the board, and it may be too much to ask for Garrard to step up and have the kind of game required to keep pace. I like New England to win, 35-21.