Sloppy play didn't hurt the Patriots ... this time
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With a 28-3 wild-card win over Jacksonville on Saturday night, Tom Brady (surely he would much prefer we say "the Patriots") improved his playoff record to 10-0, best ever. New England has won its last 10 postseason games, also an NFL record. That's 5-0 at home, 3-0 at neutral sites (also known as the Super Bowl), and 2-0 on the road (both at Pittsburgh in AFC title games, which, as Steelers fans know all to well, can be just like playing at home for visitors). Wherever, against whomever, however, you can't do anything else but respect (here you go, Tommy boy) what the Patriots have done over the past four years.
And yet after they were done dispatching the Jaguars -- whom most sane observers felt had little shot to end the run of dominance, anyway -- the Patriots expressed great respect for the task at hand. If the Bengals were to beat the Steelers on Sunday, then fourth-seeded New England would travel to Indianapolis for the divisional round. Should Pittsburgh knock off Cincinnati, the Patriots would head to Denver. Playoff history with the Colts aside, you're talking six one way and half a dozen the other. At 14-2 the Colts were the best team in football for the regular season, and at 13-3 the Broncos weren't far behind. The Patriots couldn't keep up with either the last time they played; Denver beat New England, 28-20 -- and it wasn't that close -- at Invesco Field at Mile High in Week 6, and three weeks later, Indianapolis reversed its Foxborough curse, 40-21, dropping the Patriots to 4-4.
A different kind of 4-and-4 marked the Patriots' win Saturday night. Try four sacks of Brady and four fumbles, two of which, had the Jags managed to recover, may have changed the complexion of the game. First, Jacksonville defensive end Reggie Hayward strip-sacked Brady in Patriots territory in the final minute of the first half. Had it actually been a turnover, perhaps the Jags could have turned it into points. Instead, New England went into the locker room ahead 7-3. On the Patriots' first possession of the second half, Mike Peterson forced a Ben Watson fumble inside Jacksonville's 10-yard line, and the ball got kicked around until Patriots wideout Andre' Davis fell on it at the 3 for a gain of 9 on what easily could have been a drive-killing turnover. Instead, the Patriots went ahead 14-3 on the next play on David Givens's touchdown catch.
Watson dropped what would have been a touchdown catch in the first quarter. Brady dropped a low shotgun snap in the first. In the third, Deion Branch broke free behind the Jags' last line but couldn't come up with the over-the-shoulder catch just short of the goal line.
The Patriots gained 118 yards on the ground, but their primary running back, Corey Dillon, was more a problem for the local media during the week than he was for the Jags on Saturday night -- 40 yards on 17 carries.
Here's the point: The margin of victory was wide, but the win was not impressive, particularly from an offensive standpoint. Frankly, the Patriots won this one thanks to a little luck; a tremendous individual effort by Watson on a third-quarter, 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run that, in the words of Bill Belichick, "really should have been probably a third-down stop"; and a great call by defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in the fourth quarter that put Asante Samuel in perfect position to pick off a Byron Leftwich pass and take it 73 yards for a touchdown.
Belichick told his team after the win that, now, they're even with the best teams in the league, Denver and Indy, as in they're with them in the second round. But a performance like Saturday night's, which was more than good enough against Jacksonville, won't cut it against either the Broncos or Colts. Play like that again, sloppy, and that record's going to be 10-1 after next week. And the Patriots know it.
"I don't think history matters a whole lot. I really don't," said Brady, who with three touchdown passes and no interceptions raised his career postseason TD-to-INT ratio to 14-3. "As a team we're going to need to play our best. We just can't afford some of the mistakes we had [Saturday night]. If we don't play our most consistent brand of football, I don't care whether it's on the road or at home, we're not going to win."
Tight end Christian Fauria agreed, saying, "We need to play our best game of the year for either one of those teams. Both of them beat us up pretty good when we played them last time. I definitely think our best game is still out there. I don't think we've seen it yet. We've seen glimpses of it."
You won't see many efforts such as the one Willie McGinest put forth: a league-record 4½ sacks, giving him 16 career postseason sacks, also a record (sacks became an official statistic in 1982). McGinest led a defense that, despite playing without linebacker and leader Tedy Bruschi, kept Jacksonville out of the end zone, stopped 11 of 12 third-down conversions, and held Leftwich to a 61.1 passer rating in his return from a six-week layoff. New England's defense, we've got no problems with it. "Defense played terrific, as usual," Brady said.
When the Patriots play the Broncos, Denver usually gets the better of the matchup, having won three of the past four meetings, losing only a thriller with Danny Kanell at quarterback. And while New England has ended the Colts' season the past two years, there's a big difference between those Colts and this year's team -- specifically a defense, plus Indy will be at home this year. Based on Saturday night's uneven performance, if we had to rate New England's chances next week, we'd be inclined to say "no" to a win in Denver and "probably not" to a victory at Indianapolis.
But the Patriots are a better team than the one that went to Denver and fell behind 28-6 and the one the Colts trounced at Gillette Stadium two months ago.
"From a distance," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said of the Patriots' early-season struggles, "it appeared that several of their leaders stepped forward and just basically let it be known that it wasn't going to be the way it was going, that they were going to pull together and get it done. You could just see it kind of galvanize.
"They're playing good football now."
Yeah. Except that good won't be good enough in Denver or Indianapolis. The Patriots need to be great if they're going to make it 11 straight.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.