Commentary

Jaguars are trendy pick to upset Pats, but not the best one

Figuring out the teams that will give the Patriots the most trouble in the playoffs is pretty easy. There is only one real challenger.

Originally Published: December 29, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Tom Brady, Peyton ManningDavid Stluka/Getty ImagesOdds are, Tom Brady (left) and Peyton Manning will be renewing acquaintances in the AFC title game.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have been struggling all season to figure out what to do with theNew England Patriots. During their 16-0 regular season, the Patriots' average margin of victory was 19.8 points, and they have shown no fear of running up the score on opponents.

As a result, the oddsmakers have had to establish some of the largest odds in NFL history to draw bettors to underdogs such as the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. They have made these odds regardless of weather conditions that might lower the scoring in some games.

Figuring out the teams that will give the Patriots the most trouble in the playoffs is pretty easy. The Colts are about the only team. Overall, the Patriots have played four of the six remaining potential AFC playoff teams this season. Here's how the challengers stack up -- including my unscientific odds against their quest to derail the Patriots:

1. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts led the Patriots 20-10 in the fourth quarter of their Nov. 4 game in the RCA Dome, but injuries killed Indianapolis as the game progressed. The Colts lost wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez to a dislocated thumb in the opening series. By the time the game ended in a 24-20 Patriots victory, the Colts were down nine injured players who couldn't play the next week against San Diego.

Tom Brady was able to bring back the Patriots with two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but the series between these two teams is one of the best of all time. Last season, the Colts taught the Patriots the importance of going for touchdown drives and not settling for field goals. That led to the Patriots' push to acquire Randy Moss and other weapons.

Just because the Colts were seven-point underdogs in their home game against the Patriots, don't be misled. This is a series in which the games almost always go down to the end. The last quarterback who has the ball usually wins.

Clayton's odds against the Colts beating the Patriots: 2-to-1

2. San Diego Chargers: They have the next-best chance to beat the Patriots, but there is a big gap between the Patriots and Chargers. The Patriots won the regular-season meeting, 38-14.

The Chargers are much better than they were in Week 2. It took coach Norv Turner until recently to find the right approach to the running attack. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell finally is dialing up the right blitzes. The problem for the Chargers is that quarterback Philip Rivers hasn't matched his 2006 performance.

Although the Chargers' passing offense is more talented with the trade-deadline addition of wide receiver Chris Chambers, Rivers has struggled on the road, and he might not get the necessary touchdown drives against the Patriots.

Odds against the Chargers beating the Patriots: 10-to-1

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars are the trendy pick to be the main challenger to the Patriots. But their offense is built more for field goal drives than touchdowns.

There is no doubt the Jaguars would give the Patriots problems with their running offense. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew could put up 150 yards on the Patriots. But that's not enough anymore. Unless the Jags' running series result in more touchdowns, the Patriots would win.

Odds against the Jaguars beating the Patriots: 20-to-1

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: They were the supposed last hope of stopping the Patriots when the teams met Dec. 9. The Patriots beat them, 34-13, and now the Steelers are weaker because of injuries.

They lost defensive end Aaron Smith and halfback Willie Parker for the season. Left tackle Marvel Smith had back surgery and probably won't be available in the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger can't count on the play-action plays to work because of Parker's absence. A rematch with the Patriots could resemble a rerun.

Odds against the Steelers beating the Patriots: 25-to-1

5. Tennessee Titans: They are like the Jaguars, which hurts their chances. The Titans are the lowest-scoring team in the AFC playoff race, averaging about 19 points a game.

Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch would give the Patriots' offensive line problems, but Brady still would still have time to throw.

Titans quarterback Vince Young could gain 80 yards rushing against the Patriots because he might be able to get past the defensive line and into the aging part of the Patriots' defense: the linebackers. But the Titans don't score enough touchdowns to stay with the Patriots.

Odds against the Titans beating the Patriots: 70-to-1

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer