JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A few years ago, linebacker Tedy Bruschi came up with a saying for games like the one the Patriots played yesterday. He called them hat-and-T-shirt contests.
The idea was simple. With a win, players would find championship hats and T-shirts waiting for them in their lockers.
“You know you’ve accomplished something when you have a hat and T-shirt,” Bruschi said as he donned a black AFC East Championship hat following the Patriots’ 24-21 victory over the Jaguars yesterday at Alltel Stadium.
Yesterday’s hard-fought win - which featured a dramatically altered offensive approach with a heavy emphasis on passing - clinched the Patriots’ franchise-record fourth straight AFC East title and fifth in the past six years.
Like Bruschi, coach Bill Belichick wore a championship hat after the game as he talked about what the title means to the team, now 11-4.
“I’m happy to win the AFC East and am proud of what our players did. They’ve overcome a lot this year to have the record we have,” said Belichick, perhaps thinking about the nearly 200-man games lost to injury, one of the highest figures in the NFL. “You have to give all the credit in the world to the players, they played their hearts out. They certainly deserve it.”
Belichick noted the irony of how the last time the Patriots played at Alltel Stadium, it was in Super Bowl XXXIX, and the team won by the same score. Like that Super Bowl victory over the Eagles, the Patriots also had safety Rodney Harrison with the ball in his hands at the end of yesterday’s game, sealing the result. In the Super Bowl, Harrison had an interception to wrap up the victory. Yesterday, it was a fumble recovery as the Jaguars attempted a final march near midfield.
And like that Super Bowl, the Patriots threw a significant changeup to their opposition. In the Super Bowl, the team played a 4-3 defense that surprised the Eagles. Yesterday, it was the offense that shifted gears, going with a plan that hadn’t been executed at any point this season - flooding the field with receivers, sometimes lining those receivers up at running back, using bunch formations, consistently mixing personnel groups, and letting it rip through the air.
“Obviously, we change [gameplans] from week to week, but this week it seemed like we changed a little bit more,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “One of the things we wanted to do was keep them off balance, and just never let them feel comfortable about what we were doing. We wanted to mix up the personnel groupings and send people in and out of the game and try to get a lot of people touching the ball.”
The results were just like McDaniels and Co. drew them up. Eleven players caught at least one pass, and quarterback Tom Brady - who was knocked out of the game for one snap because of a hard hit on a running play in the fourth quarter - finished 28 of 39 for 249 yards and one touchdown.
“That was part of the plan, to try to find the open guys and spread them out a little bit and run it when there was a light box, which we did,” said Brady, who also made things happen with his feet (career-high 31 rushing yards on 10 carries) when things broke down in the air.
The offensive performance was that much more impressive considering the Jaguars entered the game allowing an average of 9.1 points per contest at home this season. The Jaguars, now 8-7, also needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Early on, it looked as if the game would be a defensive struggle, the teams playing a scoreless first quarter before rookie Stephen Gostkowski booted a 48-yard field goal with 13:19 left in the second quarter, giving the Patriots a 3-0 lead.
Yet on the Jaguars’ first play on their ensuing drive, rookie running back Maurice Jones-Drew raced 74 yards for a touchdown to give Jacksonville a 7-3 advantage. It was an unconventional play in which Jones-Drew barreled up the middle, fell to the ground after making contact with his own tight end (Kyle Brady), but was never touched by a defender. Jones-Drew kept running, ripping through an attempted tackle by outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain - who apparently thought Jones-Drew had been touched down - and then tackle attempts by safeties Artrell Hawkins and Rodney Harrison (who returned after missing the past six games because of a fractured scapula).
The Patriots answered back later in the quarter, putting together one of their most impressive drives of the season - a 14-play, 82-yard surge that was reflective of the overall plan to stay out of third-and-long. The Patriots had only two third-down plays on the entire march, attacking through the air before Corey Dillon rumbled in from 1 yard out to give the team a 10-7 lead it took into halftime.
The momentum carried into the third quarter, with the Patriots immediately storming down the field, this time 78 yards on seven plays. Rookie tight end David Thomas had the two big plays - a 36-yard catch-and-run along the left sideline and a remarkable, diving, 22-yard yard touchdown grab over the middle on a beautiful pass by Brady with 11:24 left in the third.
The Jaguars closed to 17-14 late in the third when Jones-Drew (131 yards, 19 carries) scored from the 1. But the Patriots opened it back up to 24-14 when Laurence Maroney - who was playing for the first time since suffering torn rib cartilage Dec. 3 - raced for a 27-yard rushing score with 4:36 left in the game.
The Jaguars came right back, slicing it to 24-21 with 3:03 left on a 33-yard touchdown connection from David Garrard (17 of 23, 195 yards, 1 TD) to Matt Jones. And when the Patriots couldn’t run out the clock, Jacksonville got the ball back at its 45-yard line with 1:55 left. On the first play, Banta-Cain pinched Garrard out of the pocket, defensive lineman Jarvis Green forced a fumble, and Harrison recovered.
The celebration was on. The hats and T-shirts were delivered, the Patriots assured of hosting a playoff game on wild-card weekend (Jan. 6 or 7).
“We’ve accomplished something now,” Bruschi said. “That’s why I have a hat on my head. It’s nice to be a division champion.”