New England Patriots: Jacksonville Jaguars
This year's Jaguars team bears almost no resemblance to that team. Jacksonville is tied with the Chiefs for the worst record in the league (2-12).
Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggled earlier in the season before being placed on injured reserve. The Jaguars' offense is Chad Henne's to run, a task made tougher considering the patchwork nature of Jacksonville's running game. Maurice Jones-Drew has 414 rushing yards this season, and is still the Jaguars' leading rusher despite missing the last eight games. Add in an underwhelming defense, and this week presents a good opportunity for the Patriots to get back on track after Sunday's tough loss.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
Rest for weary O-line? After back-to-back matchups with the Texans and 49ers, the Patriots' offensive line could use a breather. Tom Brady was frequently pressured but was sacked only four times in the last two weeks, and the Jaguars will not bring the same pass-rushing threat on Sunday. Jacksonville's defense has recorded a sack every 34.3 dropbacks, second-worst in the league (Raiders). The Jaguars' weak pass rush and weaker record led to Jason Babin's waiver acquisition before Week 13. Babin has only one sack in the three games since, getting to Mark Sanchez in Week 14 as part of a six-man pass rush. Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, a former first-round draft pick with three sacks this season, is the only Jaguar with more than two sacks and can offer some interior threat. Jacksonville's defensive front is not on the level of San Francisco's or Houston's, and Brady should have time to throw.
How will Henne fare? Chad Henne is no stranger to Bill Belichick. As the starter in Miami, Henne was 1-4 against the Patriots from 2009-11 with varying degrees of success. Henne threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in last year's season-opener, but posted only a 59.0 completion percentage and minus-1 TD-INT differential in four other matchups. Henne is not particularly efficient, with a 51.9 completion percentage that ranks last among 35 qualified quarterbacks this season. His completion percentage reflects a tendency toward deeper throws. Henne's average pass length is 9.0 yards downfield, the eighth-highest in the league, and since Week 12 (his first start this season) Henne has attempted 39 throws deeper than 15 yards downfield, fourth-most in the league. Henne's favorite deep target is not first-round pick Justin Blackmon, but rather second-year speedster Cecil Shorts III, who has nine receptions of at least 30 yards this season. Only Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson have more.
Jags not running well: The Jaguars are among the worst rushing teams in the league. A Jacksonville back has rushed for more than 80 yards in a game only twice this season. Jacksonville as a team has rushed for 100 yards or less in 11 of 14 games this season, most of any team in the league. Jones-Drew missed the last eight games, but even before his injury, ranked 18th in the league. He is questionable for Sunday, and Jacksonville's options are limited if Jones-Drew misses his ninth straight game with a foot injury. Rashad Jennings has yet to pass a concussion test as of Wednesday, and Montell Owens appears to be in line for the majority of the work. Owens, a former Maine Black Bear, had 25 rushes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the last two games.
- ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss: Patriots 31, Jaguars 13. In an inconsistent season, the Patriots will find a way to put together one of their most complete efforts against a team that is a good matchup for them, one that could create a glimmer of hope for what the team might be able to do in the playoffs.
- ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg: Patriots 24, Jaguars 13. Another week, another unremarkable victory. But the Patriots clearly aren't going for style points this season and a win Sunday locks up the AFC East title and a first-round home playoff game, two accomplishments the team can cross of its 2009 checklist. That said, wake me when the postseason starts.
- ESPN's experts: All nine pick the Patriots over the Jaguars.
- Sunday Countdown: Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka all pick the Patriots.
- Make your picks for all of Sunday's games in this SportsNation feature or in our Pigskin Pick 'Em contest.
Check back later this week for more predictions as they come available ...
1. They are 7-7, and will need to win their final two games -- and hope for help -- to qualify for the playoffs.
2. After three straight home games, they finish with two games on the road -- at New England and Cleveland. They are 2-4 on the road this season.
3. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is third in the NFL with 1,246 rushing yards. With 16 touchdowns (15 rushing, 1 receiving), he is the league’s top scoring non-kicker.
4. The Jaguars don’t employ a backfield-by-committee. Jones-Drew has 278 carries, and quarterback David Garrard is next with 68.
5. Garrard has generally avoided the critical mistake. He has just seven interceptions on the season, as the Jaguars rank fourth in the NFL in fewest interceptions per pass play.
6. Pass rush has been an issue all season. They have just 14 quarterback sacks and rank last in the NFL in sacks per opponents’ pass play.
7. Jack Del Rio is in his seventh season as head coach.
8. Gene Smith is in his first season as general manager, and one of his top assistants is Terry McDonough, the son of late Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough.
9. Mike Sims-Walker, a third-year player out of Central Florida, is their leading receiver. The 2007 third-round draft choice has 59 receptions and seven touchdowns.
10. They rank as the NFL’s best punt coverage team, with opponents averaging just 3.9 yards per return.
The Patriots sent a 2009 third-round draft choice to the Jaguars for a 2010 second-round pick and a 2009 seventh-rounder.
The Jaguars selected cornerback Derek Cox out of William & Mary. The Patriots stashed the '10 second-rounder in the bank and selected Julian Edelman with the 2009 seventh-rounder.
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio was asked Tuesday on a conference call to revisit the trade, in addition to how Cox (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) has performed.
"He's had a good year for us," Del Rio said. "We've had 10 rookies who have been active on game days and contribute and he's one of the guys who falls in that category. He's been solid, played all year, been very dependable. He is a bright, young guy that works hard every day. ... He just happened to be from a smaller school and wasn't as highly touted. I give credit to [general manager] Gene Smith, who did a good job sticking to his guns in what he believed and having the courage to pull the trigger and make the deal and acquire a player who has been able to help us all year."
ANALYSIS: This looks like a deal that helped both teams, although it can't fully be analyzed until the Patriots make the pick in 2010. Edelman has been one of the surprise performers for the Patriots this season, and the 2010 second-round pick is a nice chip. Meanwhile, Cox has started all 14 games for the Jaguars and is growing on the job (three interceptions). He has good size for a corner and is the type of hard worker that Smith, the first-year general manager, wants in the Jaguars' locker room. A big part of this season for the Jaguars has been filling the locker room with as many high-character, high-talent, hard workers as possible, and it looks like they've hit with Cox.
"This weekend, we were talking a little bit and I asked him if he was going to play and didn’t get a response back," Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew said Tuesday on a conference call. "I kind of figured it was a 'yeah.'"
Jones-Drew said it will be exciting to be on the opposite side of the field from Taylor. He added that Taylor has molded him into the player he is, and the two still work out together in the offseason.
"It's going to be real emotional, because there are 10 or 12 of us who Fred kind of raised into the league," Jones-Drew said. "When I got here, Fred came to me with open arms. He said, 'I'm willing to teach you if you're willing to learn and listen.' To hear one of the best players at the position say something like that, it kind of turned our relationship into what it is now."
“I think the thing that stands out about this team is how big and physical they are, really in every area," Belichick said. "They are physical on offense, physical on defense, physical in the kicking game. They’re strong, they’re tough. They can run the ball, they can stand up to the running game, they can cover well. Of course, they can throw it and defend it too. They’re a physical team -- they’re big, they’re tough -- and it’s been that style of play pretty much every week in every phase of the game. With the players they have, straight down the roster, for the most part they are bigger and probably faster than most of the other players in the league at their respective positions."
Belichick described the Jaguars' offensive scheme as not "overly complex."
"They kind of do what they do, they do it pretty well, and they make you stop it," he said. "You watch them play last week against Indianapolis and a lot of times I don't think it was a big mystery as to what they are trying to do. It's just a question of whether you can do anything about it. You have to be able to cover big receivers, a couple big, fast tight ends, and you have to be able to play against a physical offensive line, a physical back, and a big quarterback who is mobile and athletic and has a great arm. I don't think it's a big scheme game, a chess match. I think it's more of a can-you-stop-the-things-they-do [game]."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Is Vince Wilfork playing the best football of his career?
That was one of the questions posed to the Patriots defensive lineman, one week after he shifted to defensive end for the first time since his rookie season and helped the Patriots topple the Dolphins 27-17.
"My thing is, I just do what I can do to help my teammates," said Wilfork, who has 22 tackles in seven games this season. "If that's getting better each week, I try. Lord knows I try my best. What I put out there on the field, I want my teammates to feed off that. I lead by example. I'm not a big talker. My work speaks for itself."
Wilfork said coach Bill Belichick approached him during the week about making the move outside. He enjoyed the challenge of being matched up against Dolphins tackle Jake Long.
"Getting back to my roots, the last time I was out there was probably my rookie year," Wilfork said. "It's a little different out there. We got through it and we'll move on from there."
The Patriots didn't just get through it; they thrived in limiting the Dolphins and their Wildcat offense to 109 yards rushing, nearly half of which came out of a surprise option attack with backup quarterback Pat White (6 carries, 45 yards).
"There're some things I wish I could take back -- a couple tackles, I wish I had them back," Wilfork said. "I just try to work hard every day, try to be at a level of consistency."
Now Wilfork is focused on the Colts and wouldn't mind getting his first sack of the season against Peyton Manning.
"It's tough; it's like he's in a three-step drop every time, but he's not," Wilfork said. "It's just the timing. He's so great with the timing to his receivers or the running backs. Sometimes you come scot-free and the ball's out, so we just have to keep doing what we do. Keep pressure on him."
Thomas Williams: Seau knows my name!
Linebacker Thomas Williams, a former fifth-round pick (155th overall) of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2008 draft who signed to the Patriots' practice squad Monday, is getting comfortable in New England with the help of fellow University of Southern California alumnus Junior Seau.
"It was kind of cool, he knew my name," Williams said. "A guy like that, someone I've been watching since I was a kid, said 'Thomas, you can sit right there' and pointed me to a seat [in meetings]. He seems great, helping me out. I'm going to be a sponge to him however long I'm here; just sit next to him, ask questions. He's got so much knowledge."
Williams should be honored Seau knew his name, as the 40-year-old linebacker is notorious for calling teammates "Buddy Buddy."
Williams was on the active roster in Jacksonville last year, appearing in six games for the Jaguars, but was waived before the start of the 2009 season. Williams signed to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad but was released in late September. He said he worked out for a few teams before signing with New England when a spot opened with Kyle Arrington moving to the active roster.
"There's 32 teams in the NFL, I'm not going away until I hit every city, maybe once or twice," Williams said. "It's been my dream since I was a kid. God blessed me to stay level-headed and continue to pursue this."
Williams did say the Patriots were "the Yankees of football," referring to their championship pedigree. But kindly reminded he might not want to compare the two in these parts, Williams laughed.
"Well, you know what I mean," he said. "I'm just an average sports fan."
Wilhite feeling better
Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, who missed last week's game due to illness, chatted with reporters and deemed himself ready to get back on the practice field.
Wilhite thinks he caught the bug while taking care of his little sister in Tennessee during the bye week, but said he's never been floored by an illness like this before.
"I've been sick, but I've never had anything keep me out for that long," Wilhite said. "I'm happy to be standing here talking to y'all.
I've been throwing up and sick a lot. Everything's fine now. I'm ready to get back to football."
Wilhite had plenty of support in his corner.
"It was tough, but I had the support of my teammates," he said. "A lot of guys called and checked on me. The best thing was watching them win. That was a good thing & Knowing guys stepped in and made plays."
Light, Green in locker room
Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light, sidelined since injuring his right knee in a Week 5 loss to the Broncos, walked through the locker room without a brace or limp. Light approached his locker stall as media circled, but he simply grabbed a Red Bull from a nearby refrigerator and walked to the weight room.
He didn't give an update on his status but was his normal joking self as reporters asked about his condition.
Later, Jarvis Green, sidelined after knee surgery during the bye week, appeared in the locker room and likewise looked in quality condition.
Praise for Gostkowski
Arrington, who made two special teams tackles on kickoff coverage in his pro debut this past week against the Dolphins, said it was nice to see Stephen Gostkowski earn the AFC Special Team Player of the Week honors and deflected all the credit to the kicker.
"We did our part; we covered fairly well, but it was all Steve," Arrington said. "With three touchbacks and four field goals, he was definitely the catalyst."