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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (7-7) at New England (9-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Go ahead. Figure out the New England Patriots.
We dare you.
A year after the catastrophic injury to Tom Brady and just a few weeks after the mini-soap opera involving wide receiver Randy Moss, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what the "Pats" brand name stands for on the eve of yet another AFC playoff run.
Oh sure, New England is about to reclaim the East Division title it barely relinquished under the direction of stand-in Matt Cassel last season, but it's hardly an automatic claim to world dominance, considering no other player in the four-team loop is above .500.
And while the Patriots did hang 59 points on Tennessee in Week 6 and have reached 30 points on three other occasions, they've barely looked the part in two close victories over lowly Buffalo - including a 17-10 win last week - and losses to both Miami and New York.
But still, it's December. It's Belichick. It's Brady. It's the red, white and blue uniforms.
And until decisively proven otherwise, that still means something.
"We didn't have the kind of consistency we'd like to have in any area," Belichick said, "and we've just got to keep working harder to have more good plays and eliminate some of the ones that weren't quite up to the standard that we'd like to have."
As for the Jaguars, the figuring is little easier.
Jacksonville was 2-2 after four games, 3-3 after six games and 4-4 after eight games before consecutive defeats of the Jets and Bills got them two games above .500 and seemingly ready to make a statement in terms of readiness for the postseason.
Instead, three losses in four games have followed, plummeting Jack Del Rio and Co. back to the middle of the hopelessly muddled flotsam and jetsam pining away for the fleeting AFC wild card berth.
At 7-7, the Jags are a game behind both Denver and Baltimore and tied with no fewer than five teams - Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Houston - who'll no doubt spend as much of their weekends scoreboard-watching as playing their own games.
To its advantage, the Jaguars have the best conference record of the stuck-in- the-middle lot, meaning they'll be first to take advantage should the Ravens and/or Broncos falter...as long as they do their share and beat the Patriots, that is.
"It hasn't been an easy road and we're still on our journey," linebacker Clint Ingram said. "But everyone has their eye on the same goal."
New England is 4-0 against Jacksonville in regular season games all-time, including a 24-21 win when the teams last met, in Florida in Week 16 of the 2006 season. The Jaguars are 0-2 in regular season games played in New England, with those defeats coming in 1996 and 2003.
The Patriots and Jaguars have also met four times in the playoffs, with New England holding a 3-1 edge there, including a 31-20 home win in a 2007 AFC Divisional Playoff. The Patriots were also 28-3 winners in a 2005 AFC First- Round Playoff; New England scored a 20-6 home victory in the 1996 AFC Championship; and the Jaguars earned their only meaningful win against the Patriots in their history with a 25-10 home win in a 1998 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Belichick is 4-2 against the Jaguars, with both losses dating back to the 1995 season, when he served as head coach in Cleveland. Jacksonville's Del Rio is 0-4 against both Belichick and the Patriots in his career as a head coach.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
In his first year as the full-time option, Maurice Jones-Drew has proven worthy of the job. His 1,246 yards are both a career-best and third in the league, while his 16 touchdowns are best in the NFL and two short of passing current Patriot Fred Taylor for the Jacksonville franchise record. Speaking of Taylor, Jones-Drew is 69 yards short of eclipsing his 1,314 total that's third-best in Jaguars history as well. Among the other personnel, quarterback David Garrard has been solid against the Patriots in two starts, completing 39-of-56 passes for three touchdowns and a 105.7 passer rating. He is 118 yards away from joining Mark Brunell as the franchise's lone QBs with 13,000 career yards. On the outside, Mike Sims-Walker is three scores away from Reggie Williams' team record of 10 in a season, while Marcedes Lewis can, with 82 yards, become the second Jags tight end to reach 600 in a season.
Though it's not their bread-and-butter - see Brady, Tom and Moss, Randy - the New England defense has been situationally stingy in surrendering just 244 points over 14 games (17.4 per week). Only six of those 14 games have seen foes score 20 points, while the Pats have held five others to 10 points or less. The average weekly yardage stipend for opponents has been 314.9, which includes 105 on the ground and 209.5 through the air. The pass number is ninth-best in the league. Leigh Bodden leads with five of the team's 15 interceptions, followed by Brandon Meriweather with four. Young standout linebacker Jarod Mayo is tops with 80 tackles, including 55 solos, while the pass rush features a team-best and career-high 8.5 sacks from outside backer Tully Banta-Cain. He had three last week against the Bills, who also allowed cornerback Jonathan Wilhite's second interception of 2009.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Unlike Peyton Manning and the Colts and Drew Brees and the Saints, Brady, Moss and Co. aren't far enough ahead of the pack in the AFC to warrant a week off, so they'll have a crack at surpassing the 398.3-yard average that's already best in the conference. Brady is aiming for a 20th straight regular season win as a home starter, a streak that's seen him post 37 TDs against 10 interceptions for a 102.8 passer rating. He's 4-0 lifetime against Jacksonville with a 115.4 passer mark. Moss's touchdown last week gave him 10 on the season for the ninth time in his career, equaling the mark established by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Meanwhile, Wes Welker leads the NFL with 109 catches and is four away from bettering his career number of 112 from 2007. Meanwhile, on the ground, Laurence Maroney is a TD away from becoming the first New England back since Corey Dillon in 2006 to reach double-digit scores.
Regardless of its performance in the previous 14 games, no team is buoyed by the presence of New England's high-octane offense...and Jacksonville is no different. The Jaguars have allowed a pedestrian 322 points over 14 weeks, an average of 23 per outing. Along with that total is the per-week allowance of 348.1 yards, which surpasses the 341.6 the Jaguars' offense has managed. One glaring weakness is the seeming lack of a pass rush, which has kept Jacksonville to an NFL-low 14 sacks - a category led by the three posted by former Pro Bowler John Henderson. Only one other player, former Florida star Derrick Harvey, has accounted for as many as two. Elsewhere, rookie cornerback Derek Cox and veteran Rashean Mathis each have three interceptions. Cox, however, is questionable this week with a hamstring injury. Linebacker Daryl Smith leads the team with 123 tackles.
Coming off a season-worst outing against the Bills, Brady ought to be ready to post numbers here, if he hasn't already cost owners their playoff lives. Ditto for Moss, who's been average lately. Welker, too, is a no-brainer for those who own him. Meanwhile, Maroney may be a strong play behind a solid No. 1 option at RB. For the Jags, it really begins and ends with Jones-Drew, who's succeeded in all ways and all foes in 2009. Defensively, if pressed, go with the Pats.
If the Patriots had already reached 10 wins or lapped the field in the AFC East, this game would include the requisite late-season "will he even play" questions about Brady and Co. In the absence of that, however, and with the Jaguars a weak competitor on the road - 2-4 this season - it seems difficult to come up with a scenario that'd favor the visitors.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 27, Jaguars 17
12/23 14:02:53 ET
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