Sunday January 13th, 2008

If you're one of New England's remaining postseason opponents -- and you know who you are -- here's the really scary part about Saturday night's outcome at Gillette Stadium: The wild-card Jacksonville Jaguars came pretty darn close to playing the game that it's going to take to finally beat these perfect-season Patriots. And it still wasn't nearly enough.

Blueprint? Blueprint this.

Going into New England's 31-20 AFC divisional-round defeat of Jacksonville, the Jaguars knew they had to keep New England's bevy of playmakers in front of them, making the Patriots dink and dunk their way down the field rather than striking for the game-turning big play.

They did that. Home-run threat Randy Moss was bottled up by a two-deep zone and had just one catch for 14 yards, and that came on the Patriots' first drive. And Jacksonville didn't surrender any gain longer than a 33-yard Laurence Maroney reception until nine minutes remained, when receiver Donte Stallworth hauled in a 53-yard pass from Tom Brady.

The Jaguars knew they had to limit the number of New England's possessions, controlling the clock and making their offense their best defense against the high-scoring Patriots.

They did that. New England had just three meaningful drives in the first half, and four more in the second half, with Jacksonville piling up 350 yards of total offense, 22 first downs and 27:40 of possession time.

And the Jaguars knew they had to keep the game close well into the fourth quarter, staying within one possession of tying the score or taking the lead against a record-breaking Patriots team that played from ahead most of this season.

They did that, too. The Patriots led only 28-20 with under seven minutes remaining, before a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal pushed New England's lead into double digits for good. Jacksonville led 7-0 after its first drive, tied the Patriots at 14-14 at the half, and cut it to 21-17 with just three minutes to go in the third. But no matter, the Patriots still prevailed.

It wasn't the perfect game, but Jacksonville proved it had the right idea of how to beat the Patriots. It's just that when push came to shove, it couldn't actually beat the Patriots. And how can you, really, when Brady barely lets the ball hit the ground, going 26 of 28 to set an NFL one-game record for completion percentage (92.9)? And when Patriots punter Chris Hanson doesn't even take the field to ply his craft until less than a minute remains? And when New England methodically cobbles together three different scoring drives of at least 74 yards, with nary a turnover throughout the game?

Doing whatever it took to extend their perfect season to a glitzy 17-0, it was the ever-spectacular Brady and the Patriots who might have played something approaching the perfect game. New England was patient on offense when it had to be, taking what the Jaguars gave it underneath. And the Patriots made just enough plays on defense to blunt the Jaguars upset bid, intercepting Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard once in the second half, and recovering his fumble in the first half.

That was enough to put New England into next week's AFC Championship Game at Gillette, and drop its magic number to two -- as in the two victories that stand between the Patriots and the first 19-0 season in NFL history.

"I feel like the energy, the effort, the plan that we put together was good and sound,'' Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. "We went toe to toe for a while with these guys. But we were just not quite good enough to match them.''

Join the club, Jack. No matter the situation, these Patriots never panic, and it's because they have a truly special quarterback in Brady. The Jaguars' Garrard came out firing the ball all over the field and served notice that Jacksonville would no go easily on this night. But Brady was at his playoff best all game, and when the Jaguars defense took away Moss, he merely looked elsewhere, completing passes to eight different New England receivers.

Brady hit his first 16 passes against Jacksonville, not missing until tight end Benjamin Watson let one bounce off his hands with 10:25 left in the third. As if that wasn't impressive enough, Brady proceeded to complete nine more passes until his second incompletion, a drop of potential first-down reception by the usually reliable Wes Welker with 6:43 to go in the game.

Brady was the clear-cut difference in this game, and his ultra-efficient 262-yard, three-touchdown passing produced a rating of 141.4, and inspired awe in both locker rooms.

"It was awesome,'' Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of Brady's performance. "That's an unbelievable statistic: 26 of 28. Tom plays his best against teams in the biggest games, and it's fun to watch for us. When you hear a stat like that, you know your quarterback was on his game.''

"On his game" really doesn't capture Brady's brilliance against the Jaguars. He didn't make a poor throw all night, and if the Patriots go on to record their perfect season, Brady's near-perfect game against Jacksonville might wind up being its signature moment.

"Brady was very, very good today,'' Del Rio said. "I mean, he's been great all year, but tonight he was patient. We made him be patient. We didn't give him a lot of things over the top. But he was very patient, willing to take the short stuff and nibble a little bit.''

Nibbling never looked so good. With Jaguars cornerback Brian Williams doing a great job on Moss, with help from Jacksonville's safeties, Brady went to Welker nine times for 54 yards (just 6.0 per catch), to running back Kevin Faulk five times for 36 yards, and most importantly, to tight end Watson twice for 12 yards (both touchdowns). Brady was surgical from start to finish, shaking off the Jaguars only sack of the game on New England's first offensive snap.

"I looked up at the scoreboard one time and he was 16 of 16,'' said Garrard, who finished a strong 22 of 33 for 278 yards, with two touchdowns and that one interception to Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. "He is just so efficient. He moves so seamlessly out there, where he is just operating. Guys are just open even when guys are on them. He puts the ball in the right places and he just always seems to find the open guy. I was just trying to compete as much as possible, to stay up at that same level that they had. But we came up a little short tonight.''

Every team that has faced Brady and the Patriots this season has walked away saying a version of the same thing. And now, if the Colts take care of business on Sunday at home against the Chargers, the game that almost everyone wants to see is nearly at hand: Indianapolis at New England, in a rematch of last year's AFC title game.

If it comes to pass, rest assured there will be plenty of talk about how the defending Super Bowl champion Colts are the team that can beat the Patriots and put an end to their perfect season. But knowing what it takes to beat the Patriots and doing it are two entirely different things. Like a few other teams this season, the Jaguars had a pretty good game plan against New England.

But the Patriots on this night had that beat. They had Brady. Through 17 games this season in New England, that's been the blueprint to perfection.

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