Pats' thinking: We win, we're in
Players focus on earning playoff bid, an extra week of rest
Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots hosting the Jaguars on Sunday.
Mike: I felt the sense of urgency in the Patriots' locker room this week. Something was in the air, and it wasn't necessarily the holiday spirit. This team can smell a division title.
Tedy: Around this time of year when I was on the Patriots, Coach Belichick would always address the team and mention that it is important to spend time with your family during the holiday season. At the same time, he'd say that one of the best ways to celebrate the holiday season and do good things for your family was to win football games. That makes life that much easier and more enjoyable. With the holidays here, the Patriots have to be focused on winning a football game. And this football game is a special one -- a hat-and-T-shirt game. If you win, you go into the locker room after the game, and there is a free hat and T-shirt waiting for you, signifying your accomplishment. Your first goal is to win the division, and the Patriots have a chance to do that with a good performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Mike: From a player's perspective, how difficult was this week? You have Christmas on a Friday, and it's a workday for the team. It sounds like Bill Belichick will give the players a little time with their families in the morning, but then they'll be in to work.
Tedy: Football doesn't stop for the holidays, whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's. It's one sport that plays through. In situations like this, you usually get a half day, a shorter day than normal. You still realize that you have a job to do on Sunday, and with the shorter day, you don't mind it. Practices usually aren't as sharp as usual, but you do the best you can to focus and get your work done.
Mike: A couple of years ago, I remember the team playing in Jacksonville on Christmas Eve. As a player, I'd have to think being home this week is a benefit for the Patriots.
Tedy: Traveling in a holiday week can be tough. I remember we played on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit in 2002, and it was strange having turkey for the pregame meal, when you're eating among your teammates and not your family. So being at home helps. It also helps that you are playing for something. If you're not playing for something and you're on the road, that could be one of the worst situations possible.
Mike: With that in mind, I thought last week was huge for the Patriots, not only beating the Bills but also having the Dolphins and Jets lose. That set up a situation in which the team doesn't have to necessarily go into the final week of the season to clinch a playoff berth. The Patriots can do it one week early if they win Sunday.
Tedy: This is the scenario that you want -- you win and you're in. It's as black-and-white as it gets, which is the way you want it as a football player. There are no mathematical equations coming into play, because when that happens, you can be 11-5 and not make the playoffs, like last season. The Patriots have their destiny in their own hands, and that's the control that every team wants. You also know that if you get your work done, you could potentially have sort of a "bye" week by resting some players in a possibly meaningless finale versus the Houston Texans on the road. That's motivation right there: a guaranteed home playoff game and then the chance to rest the aches and pains.
Mike: The makeup of every team is different at this time, and I know some clubs -- such as the Giants in 2007 -- wouldn't have wanted a break. They were building some great momentum. I think this Patriots team is at the opposite end of the spectrum; the players need some form of break, and the coaches could benefit from extra playoff preparation. That's why I think wrapping things up Sunday is so important to the Pats' long-range hopes. In terms of the Jaguars, I have paid close attention to the under-the-radar work that first-general manager Gene Smith has done, and it looks very solid to me. He is taking some solid initial steps to help build a winner in Jacksonville.
Patriots' defense versus Jaguars' offense
Tedy: When you get into this matchup, there is nothing too complicated about the Jaguars' offense. They don't try to trick you or out-formation you. This offense, and the entire team, has the mentality of head coach Jack Del Rio: "We think we are tougher than you." He thinks the players should win the one-on-one battles against your players. There is no trickery. One player who defines that is running back Maurice Jones-Drew. You know he is going to get the ball a lot, and it's your job to stop him. Going up against a 5-foot-7, 208-pound back, you might think it's an easy tackle. But from my experience, Jones-Drew was one of the most difficult tackles to make. I think some defenders make a mistake trying to go low on him, thinking that he's a rolling ball of butcher knives and if you go up high, you might bounce off. But if you go low, he has the ability to lower his pads, and he's going to be lower than you are. What I liked to do was go up high, wrap my arms around him and try to wrestle him to the ground. The only problem with that is that he is tough to wrestle to the ground, so as you are making the tackle, you have to brace yourself. That offensive line is going to push that pile, and that's why you constantly see highlights of Jones-Drew moving the pile or pushing himself into the end zone. He's not going down, and the offensive line comes in and cleans out the mess. Gang tackling will be key to victory this week.
Mike: Jones-Drew enters the game third in the NFL with 1,246 rushing yards coming on 278 carries. He has 15 rushing touchdowns and another receiving score, making him the NFL's top-scoring non-kicker. So he's the key, and the quarterback is another player who can do some damage.
Tedy: David Garrard is a good quarterback. He struggles late in the game when they need him to win games, as evidenced by the Indianapolis game when it was on the line and the Jaguars had a chance, but he was sailing throws and threw the interception to Jacob Lacey. That problem has cropped up at times throughout the season. But one positive Garrard has is that he is a very good scrambling quarterback. That can be one of the most frustrating things defensively -- you get a team into third-and-long and play good man-to-man coverage, but the quarterback escapes and moves the chains. Two of the best scrambling quarterbacks in the league are Garrard and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. They find ways with their legs to move the chains.
Mike: From a defensive perspective, what can you do to stop that from happening? Garrard's 68 carries rank second on the team, and he has 273 rushing yards (4.0 average).
Tedy: I think you feel it out during the game. There have been games when you don't start spying, but then you get victimized and put someone in to spy. So do you go into the game saying, "We have to spy David Garrard"? I don't think so. But if he starts to hurt you, then you have to take away one of your rushers and focus in on Garrard. Right now, I don't think the Patriots can afford to take away a rusher because they don't get enough pressure in the first place.
Mike: Before moving on to the other side of this matchup, anything else we should touch on? One point I wanted to make is that the Jaguars are the NFL's least penalized team, with just 66 accepted penalties.
Tedy: I think the big matchup to watch is the interior of the Jaguars' offensive line -- left guard Vince Manuwai, center Brad Meester, and right guard Uche Nwaneri. You look at those three players against the Patriots' interior defense. Is noseguard Vince Wilfork going to play and be 100 percent? Is defensive end Ty Warren going to play and be 100 percent? Running backs Freddie Jackson and Marshawn Lynch had success up the gut last week in Buffalo. You saw Ron Brace in at noseguard and he still needs development; he was moved at times by that Buffalo Bills offensive line. The noseguard position is critical in the Patriots' 3-4 defense, and if the Jaguars get 2, 3, 4 yards of movement, like the Bills were often doing on Brace, it's almost a guaranteed 5 yards every time. So noseguard play is critical.
Mike: Wilfork and Warren were limited in practices Wednesday and Thursday. It looks to me as though they will try to play, but the Patriots might need to beef up their D-line numbers on the 45-man game-day roster just in case. They usually have five linemen active. They might have to consider six this week, which could affect special teams.
Patriots' offense versus Jaguars' defense
Tedy: The Jaguars' defense is solid, but hasn't been anything spectacular. It is allowing 348 yards per game and 23 points per game. Those are numbers that rank in the bottom half of the league. For the Patriots' offense this week, I think it's more about them still trying to find their identity in late December. Last week was about Randy Moss answering his critics and the Patriots making a strong effort to help him do that. Mission accomplished. Those questions were answered. I think what you now have to start watching is whether Tom Brady is going to start picking up his game now that the year is ending and whether this will start to look like an offense that can contend with the defenses it might see down the line, assuming the Pats make the playoffs.
Mike: One storyline to follow is one of the greatest players in Jaguars history possibly facing his former team.
Tedy: The return of Fred Taylor could be big. This is a perfect game for him to return. The Jags worked him out pregame two weeks ago, and if there is any week to bring him back, playing against his old team, this is it. You've heard him and Jack Del Rio going back and forth a bit this week, Del Rio questioning the type of leader that Taylor was and Taylor saying that the Patriots watch more film than the Jaguars did. So there is a little added motivation. If Taylor comes back, you add him to the mix in which Laurence Maroney is running hard, Sammy Morris is in there and that could set up a lot of things in terms of play-action passes. In the end, maybe that's what the identity of the Patriots' offense will be. They aren't the spread-it-out, throw-it-50-times-a-game offense. Maybe they are more of an offense that pounds the running game and uses the threat of the run to take some shots down the field. That could be the identity they want but have struggled to establish it because of a lack of depth at running back and last week's added drama of Moss answering his critics.
Mike: I've always felt that the Jaguars' defense is a good matchup for the Patriots, although one point that Brady made this week is that they are more pressure-based than in the past and also incorporate some 3-4 looks to their regular 4-3 package. Brady said they blitz about 50 percent of the time. In terms of sacks, though, they don't have much to show for it -- just 14 on the season. They rank last in the NFL in sacks per pass play. In the past, you give Brady time to throw, and it's usually a nightmare for defenses.
Tedy: One thing the Jaguars' defense has showed is that you can choose the way you attack it. The Miami Dolphins started off their game against the Jaguars with two 13-play scoring drives. Last week, Indianapolis used the big play to score in chunks with a Reggie Wayne 65-yard touchdown. It will be interesting to see which way the Patriots choose because it will give us an answer as to what type of identity they are trying to adopt.
Mike: One of the reasons I like the Patriots in this game is that they are at home, where they are 7-0 this season. The Jaguars are 2-4 on the road, and some of their worst performances have come away from home -- a 41-0 loss to Seattle on Oct. 11, a 30-13 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 1 and a 20-3 loss to San Francisco on Nov. 29. This is their first road game in four weeks.
Tedy: I like the Patriots in this game, but one thing I'd say is that this is not a guaranteed win by any stretch. One word I would use to describe the Jacksonville Jaguars is "tough." I characterize toughness by the ability to cover kicks and punts, how you stop the run and how you run the ball. If you take those four statistics and add them up to the point total, the team with the lowest amount of points would be the toughest in the NFL. Jacksonville is eighth in rushing yards per game, 12th in stopping the run, 18th in kickoff return average and first in covering punts. Many coaches use that toughness meter, and there is only one team that rates better, and that's the Baltimore Ravens. This won't be a cakewalk for the Patriots.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.