FOXBOROUGH - New season, same result.
Regular season, playoffs, exhibition game played in the parking lot outside Gillette Stadium, the Patriots just keep winning, baby. They did it again last night, opening their run for a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years and extending their bid for a perfect season with a 31-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Big Razor.
The upstart Jaguars (12-6) had the perfect game plan, but the Patriots were simply better. They didn’t even need record-setting wide receiver Randy Moss to score on five of their eight possessions. Moss was held to just one catch for 14 yards, although it was a fourth-down conversion that set up New England’s first score.
No matter, because for the 17th straight time this season the Patriots found a way to win. Just don’t tell them that.
“My mom texted me earlier, `Congratulations on 17-0.’ I was like, `No the regular season is over,”’ said wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth. “This game just makes us one step closer to what we all want. It’s going to be a long road. It’s going to be tough. Whoever we’re playing it’s going to be a tough game. It all means nothing right now. All we did was survive another week. Seventeen and 0 doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
Actually, it guarantees them a date next Sunday at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship game against the winner of today’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers.
Jacksonville limited big plays, took Moss out of the game, and put together long scoring drives - nine plays, 11 plays, nine plays, and 13 plays. It didn’t matter.
“We have a lot of talent on this team,” said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. “Randy is a part of that talent and if you’re going to take him away we still have a lot of other people that can make plays, and we did it tonight.”
Tom Brady was just as patient, and more precise, than the Jaguars. Brady completed 26 of 28 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. He hit his first 16 throws before Benjamin Watson couldn’t corral a catchable ball with 10:27 remaining in the third quarter. The other incompletion was a fourth-quarter drop by Wes Welker.
An inspired Laurence Maroney had the first 100-yard rushing game of his playoff career (22 rushes for 122 yards and a score), upstaging the much-talked-about Jacksonville tailback tandem of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, who were held to 66 yards on 19 carries by a fired-up Patriots defense.
Give the Jaguars credit, they made the Foxborough Faithful sweat for a bit, until Rodney Harrison wrapped up the game with another clutch playoff interception with 4:08 left (tying an NFL record with a pickoff in four straight postseason games). That was one of two big mistakes by Jacksonville’s David Garrard, who played a solid game (22 of 33 for 278 yards and two touchdowns).
Brady didn’t make any miscues, and he showed his acting skills on a fake direct snap to Kevin Faulk. Brady deftly hid the ball, jumping and turning his back for effect, before finding Welker for a 6-yard touchdown that broke a 14-14 tie with 8:49 left in the third quarter.
“Yeah, I’m looking for my Academy Award on that play,” said the quarterback.
The Jaguars responded with a 39-yard field goal from Josh Scobee that cut the lead to 21-17, but 3-pointers are only a good thing against the Celtics. They don’t faze the Patriots, who added Benjamin Watson’s second touchdown reception of the game, a 9-yarder, to lead, 28-17, heading into the fourth quarter.
Jacksonville played early like a basketball team trying to stall against a fast-breaking opponent, using a slow-down game to try to limit Brady and Co. It worked, as the teams were tied, 14-14, at the half.
“We knew that we were going to have to grind it out every series, try to put some points on the board,” said Stallworth. “It was funny because I was telling the guys after the first quarter, `Hey, this game is going by fast. We’ve got to try to put some points on the board every time we get the ball.”’
The Patriots got four first-half possessions, including a kneel-down with nine seconds left, and scored twice. It should have been thrice, but Stephen Gostkowski, who went 8 for 8 in the postseason as a rookie last season, missed a 35-yard field goal with 53 seconds left in the half. He later made a 35-yarder.
The Jaguars wasted no time showing they weren’t merely the warm-up act for another Patriots AFC Championship game by taking the opening kickoff and marching 80 yards for a 7-0 lead.
On third and goal from the 8, Garrard, who had hit Marcedes Lewis for a 34-yard gain on fourth and 1 from the New England 43 to keep the drive alive, found Matt Jones in the end zone while being dragged to the ground by Mike Vrabel.
Replays showed Garrard’s shin may have hit just before he released the ball. Patriots coach Bill Belichick had the challenge flag in his hand and pump-faked, but elected not to throw it, cementing the first time in 15 playoff games under Belichick the Patriots had allowed points on an opening drive.
If you want to beat the Patriots in the playoffs you can’t make mistakes, and Garrard, who was 12 of 14 for 149 yards and two scores in the first half, made a big one, fumbling on a sack by Ty Warren. Vrabel recovered at the Patriots’ 29.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Patriots cashed in to take a 14-7 lead, as Maroney plowed in from the 1.
It seemed as if the Jaguars might unravel when Jones-Drew boxed around the ensuing kickoff, diving on it at the 5. Instead, Jacksonville marched 95 yards in 11 plays in 7:11 to tie the score on Garrard’s second touchdown pass, a 6-yarder to Ernest Wilford.
At that point, if the Patriots’ game plan was to make Garrard beat them, it was having mixed results, as he was 11 for 12 for 141 yards and two scores.
But Belichick read the Patriots’ defense the riot act at halftime. The players responded, holding Jacksonville to just 6 points the rest of the way.
“It keeps getting tougher every step of the way,” said Belichick. “We know that whoever we play we’ll have to play our best football. We’ll have to play better. I’m just happy to be playing next week.”