FOXBOROUGH - Now it’s all up to the Jets and Bills to rescue the other AFC contenders’ Super Bowl chances. The Chiefs, Colts, Titans, Broncos, Bengals, Ravens, and Dolphins all are depending on you, New York and Buffalo, to do something in the next two weeks to keep New England from claiming home-field advantage in the playoffs. Because lately, only the Patriots have been able to do much of anything at Gillette Stadium.
Their 27-13 taming of the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday was a franchise-record 10th in succession and 12th of the regular season, also a team record. The Patriots have not lost since Sept. 28 at Washington and, worse if you’re a prospective playoff opponent, they haven’t lost at home since the Jets beat them last Dec. 22, a run of 10 games, including exhibitions. The win improved the Patriots’ home record to 7-0 this season.
For those teams who have a realistic chance to be in Houston Feb. 1, Foxborough is not the place they want to be in January.
At least one team will have no choice should the Patriots beat the Jets at the Meadowlands Saturday night; a win would clinch a first-round bye and a divisional playoff game at home. If the 12-2 Patriots win their last two games, they’ll be the AFC’s top seed in the postseason.
Bill Belichick likes to remind us that no one can control the weather, but his team has little difficulty controlling games at Gillette when the weather is not conducive to picnics in the park. The Patriots are 6-0 all time when snow falls (2-0 in the last two weeks) in Foxborough and 13-2 in the last 10 years when the temperature dips to 35 degrees or below. (It was 25 degrees at game time and the snow started in the third quarter.) To the best of our knowledge, it’s not expected to get warmer in these parts in the coming weeks. If you find that it does, pray.
Come to think of it, divine intervention may be opponents’ best weapon when they must venture into the “White Hole.”
“That’s the environment we want it to be,” guard Damien Woody said of what may be the league’s biggest home-field advantage. “Win these last two games and have home field throughout the playoffs here? People are going to catch hell coming up here to play. We’re at home, we’re in front of our own crowd. That’s a great situation to be in. We know it’s a tough place to play if you’re an opponent.”
Before teams can think about winning at Gillette, they first must conjure ways to score. Darn that waiver system. When Jaguars receiver Kevin Johnson, on whom the Patriots put a waiver claim when he was cut by the Browns last month, hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Byron Leftwich with 3 minutes 22 seconds remaining, it ended the Patriots’ streak of 62 opponent possessions and 19 quarters at Gillette without allowing a touchdown. Before Johnson’s touchdown, an opponent had not crossed the goal line since Steve McNair did so with 4:40 remaining in the Patriots’ Oct. 5 win over the Titans - five home games ago.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots were the first team not to allow a touchdown in four home games since the 1938 New York Giants. Had the streak reached five games, New England would have tied the 1932 Chicago Bears. Both the Giants in ‘38 and the Bears in ‘32 went on to win the NFL championship, by the way.
The Jets effectively won the AFC East championship last year as guests of Gillette Stadium in the second-to-last game of the season. Belichick will remind his team of that, to be certain. Just missing a third consecutive home shutout meant about as much to him late yesterday afternoon as the Jaguars game that had just finished.
“Right now, we’re going on the road against the Jets, a division game,” Belichick said. “Our last two road division games, against Buffalo and Miami, were two of the toughest games of the year. That will be a big challenge for us and that’s really what we’re looking ahead toward. Those streaks or whatever they are, I’m not really too concerned about those.”
The coach had much with which to concern himself with his team leading the 4-10 Jaguars, 13-6, early in the fourth quarter because of a pair of first-half red-zone failures. But the Patriots and their 68,436 supporters found themselves more at ease when Tom Brady and Troy Brown - the latter playing for the first time since Nov. 3 - collaborated on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 10:57 remaining that expanded the lead to 14. Brown ran a corner route out of his slot position to get open. Also included among Brady’s 22 completions (in 34 attempts) and 228 yards was a 27-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Daniel Graham to end the Patriots’ first drive. The safety bit hard on Brady’s play-action fake, and Graham was left alone along the left side.
A touchdown for New England on its first possession was a first for the season. “Our goal was to score on our first drive on the game and we did that,” David Givens said. “We hadn’t done that all year. We made a point to come out and score early.”
“Often” usually accompanies “early,” but the Patriots stalled in the second quarter on third and less than 1 at Jacksonville’s 3, then at the Jaguars’ 13 when Larry Centers dropped a sure touchdown pass. The defense, with the Jaguars’ help, made up for it by turning Jacksonville away three times in the red zone in the first half, twice from New England’s 5.
“We had some chances where we definitely could have put some more points on the board,” Belichick said. “Fortunately, we were able to make some red-area stops ourselves, so that evened it out.”
No visitor has been able to even out the Patriots’ decided home-field advantage. If the Jets or Bills don’t derail this train, after Saturday the next trip New England takes could be to Houston for the Super Bowl.
“We’re used to playing in the cold,” Givens said, “and teams that aren’t are going to always struggle coming up here.”
“We’ve played nine games this year at home, including the preseason, and we’ve won all nine,” Brady boasted. “That’s really a credit to the home-field advantage. Our crowd makes it tough on opponents for communication purposes. And watching them last week throw snow up in the air, we were talking about that during the week. We appreciate that. Hopefully, they continue to come out and cheer us on as loud as they can.”