JACKSONVILLE -- He mentioned it almost in afterthought, not what New England coach Bill Belichick thinks his Patriots will do in the playoffs, but what he feels they could accomplish now that they have reached the goal of securing a fourth straight division championship and fifth title in six seasons.
The last time the Patriots played here nearly two full years ago, Belichick pointed out, they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX by the same 24-21 score with which they all but bounced the Jacksonville Jaguars out of the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. And the Sunday contest concluded in essentially the same way the Super Bowl XXXIX victory did, with the ball in the hands of strong safety Rodney Harrison on the Patriots' final defensive snap of the game.
"I don't know what any of it means, really, except that it's just a lot of coincidence," said Harrison, who returned to the New England lineup after a six-week absence recovering from a broken scapula and recovered a fumble by quarterback David Garrard with 1:46 remaining to extinguish the Jaguars' last gasp comeback attempt. "I mean, (in) two years, a lot changes in this game, you know?"
For the Patriots, though, there remain two constants. And as New England demonstrated again on Sunday, having the stability of Belichick on the sideline and quarterback Tom Brady on the field certainly is a pretty comforting place to start when preparing to venture into postseason play.
Have those two on the payroll, it seems, and anything is possible.
The tandem has teamed up not only to win a ton of football games, including three Super Bowl titles, but also to debunk a lot of theories about how the game is supposed to be played. And in topping the Jaguars, they might have successfully rebuffed another recently popular theory, the one which suggests that in a diluted league, a team can challenge for a championship without a franchise-type quarterback.
Make no mistake: The difference in Sunday's outcome was that the Patriots had Brady and the Jaguars had Garrard, a serviceable quarterback, but hardly a guy who can win games on his own merits the way that his counterpart did in nudging New England's record to 11-4.
Brady completed 28 of 39 passes for 249 yards, with one touchdown pass, no interceptions and passer rating of 97.1. Perhaps more remarkable than those numbers, however, was this one: The two-time Super Bowl MVP completed passes to 11 different receivers, with three or more completions to five different pass-catchers.
"We're not a one-man band on the passing game," dead-panned Belichick.
That's for sure. In fact, some have suggested that the collection of wide receivers on the New England roster is just an assemblage of No. 2 or No. 3 pass catchers, that none of them might be clear-cut starters anywhere else. No matter, though, since it never seems to matter to Brady who is on the other end of his passes.
It marked the sixth time this season that Brady, the consummate point guard-quarterback, had completions to at least eight different receivers in a game. It's the third time he had completions to at least 10 receivers. Clearly, on a day when Brady operated mainly from the shotgun and the Patriots unofficially ran 58 of 70 snaps from formations that featured three or more wide receivers, the ability of the New England quarterback to spread the wealth and pick apart the Jacksonville secondary with an assortment of short and intermediate throws was a key element.
Although the Jaguars didn't blitz the Patriots nearly as much as Minnesota did in an Oct. 30 contest, the approach by New England was the same. Belichick and his offensive staff wasn't about to beat its heads against the Jacksonville defense, trying to run the ball against tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. So they had Brady throw early and often and they ran the ball on their terms, typically on second down.
"We just did what we had to do to control things," Brady said. "We were patient and, for the most part, we followed the script."
Just two of Brady's completions, both to rookie tight end Dave Thomas, who had five receptions for 83 yards, were for more than 19 yards. But his 22-yard touchdown pass to Thomas in the third quarter was evidence of Brady's uncanny accuracy. He spotted the Jaguars in a split-safeties coverage and put the ball right between linebacker Clint Ingram and safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
"It was a very, very small window," Thomas said. "But (Brady) got it there. The guy is amazing."
Said five-year veteran Jabar Gaffney, who is in his first season with the Patriots after spending the previous four years with the Houston Texans: "When I was in Houston, I'd watch him and think, 'The guy is really good.' Now that I've gotten to play with him, I realize it isn't even close to understanding just how good he is. He's incredible really. When he's on the field, you feel like you've always got a chance."
The chances for the talented but flawed Jaguars to grab an AFC wild card berth were severely dented with Sunday's defeat and principally attributable to Garrard's inability to make plays and to a Neanderthal game plan that provided him few opportunities to do so. The Patriots play to Brady's strengths while the Jags attempt to avoid at all costs Garrard's shortcomings. The result was a ponderous and predictable offensive design that might be found in most Football 101 primers.
Offensive coordinator Carl Smith, whose future here is tenuous, essentially drew up a blueprint that relied on rookie tailback Maurice Jones-Drew as a one-trick pony.
The versatile Jones-Drew, who could well win league offensive rookie of the years honors, carried 19 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns, including an incredible 74-yard run in which he fell after running into tight end Kyle Brady, jumped up, then wiggled out of a flimsy arm-lock by Pats' linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Jones-Drew also caught six passes for 41 yards. Of Garrard's 23 pass attempts, 10 were directed at Jones-Drew.
So that means the second-round draft choice, who saw his playing time increased because of a hamstring injury that sidelined starting tailback Fred Taylor, was the top option on 29 of the Jags' 46 snaps. If the New England offense is the epitome of diversity with Belichick seemingly undaunted by any situation, the Jaguars' attack was basically one-dimensional.
Notable is that Jacksonville, which plays a lot of games not to lose rather than to win them, has lost all three of its games this season that were decided by three points or less. The Sunday defeat left the Jaguars at 8-7 for the year. They're not out of playoff competition, but need a victory next week at Kansas City, along with some outside help.
Almost as problematic is that it left significant doubt about whether coach Jack Del Rio can succeed with his current offense and his current quarterback. Former starter Byron Leftwich, who told ESPN.com after the game that his surgically-repaired ankle is coming along nicely, almost certainly won't be back in 2007. Whether Garrard, who lost the critical fumble to Harrison on a play where he attempted to scramble, is the guy who can carry the load could be a matter of considerable offseason debate here.
If he can't, Del Rio could enter his fifth season as a head coach with a big question mark at the game's most critical position.
New England, on the other hand, harbors no such doubts.
"Tom's the guy," said Thomas of the New England quarterback. "He's the man we ride."
Whether the Patriots can ride Brady all the way to a Super Bowl berth in a Florida city much deeper South than here, at Miami in six weeks, remains to be seen. But as long as the Patriots have Brady, well, they've got a shot.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com