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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Tale of two psyches

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week: visiting the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):

Mike: This game is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the past two weeks, when the Patriots hosted the division-leading Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers in prime-time games that came with a lot of hype. The Jaguars are 2-12 and vying for the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

Tedy: The attention on the past two games was at an all-time high, and that's the way it should have been when you have the Texans and 49ers coming in to Foxborough. On weeks like this, you see the difference in the locker room from a media perspective because there aren't as many reporters in there; there aren't any national interview requests. But these are games that good, solid championship teams view as an opportunity to go down there and do what you're paid to do and win football games. This is a Jacksonville team that has had a terrible year, but this is the Jaguars' Super Bowl. This is about the mentality of going out there against the Patriots -- a franchise, a team, a coach and a quarterback that has been the model of the NFL -- and proving your worth.

Mike: That's essentially what Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne said this week, noting that the Jaguars can earn a lot of respect with a strong performance Sunday. So if you're Bill Belichick, part of the challenge this week is convincing players that the Jaguars, who rank 31st in the NFL in points scored (15.6) and 29th in points allowed (27.3), are worthy foes.

Tedy: Every week, players watch video of the opposing team in meetings and on their iPads, and the coaches obviously have control over that. In a week like this, the coaches will pick all the good plays from the Jaguars' 43-37 loss to the Texans because the coaches know players have respect for the Texans. Or they'll put the good plays from a 24-15 loss to the Packers in which the Jaguars played tough, so players can see them having success against some of the best teams in the NFL. What you don't do is look too closely at last week's game, a 24-3 loss to the Dolphins in which they had no control over the game defensively. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins had second-half drives of 70, 64, 60 and 85 yards and ate up the clock. Preparationwise, this can be as much of a challenge mentally for the coaches. I'm not saying you totally ignore last week's game, but you have to convince these players that the Jaguars have some sort of legitimacy as a team. Showing their best against quality opponents can do that.

Mike: Let's look at where it all went wrong for the Jaguars.

Chad Henne
Quarterback Chad Henne and the Jaguars can earn a lot of respect with a strong performance Sunday against the Patriots.

Tedy: They started with quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and that obviously didn't work out. They gave him every chance to be successful, and he's on injured reserve now. With Henne in there, he's actually doing OK and allowing his receivers to make plays. When I watched the Jaguars with Gabbert, there wasn't even a chance for those receivers -- they'd run their route and be waiting for the ball. Either Gabbert would be sacked or it would be a throw that had no chance of being completed. Henne has at least been on time, been on rhythm, and he has given players such as Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon and Marcedes Lewis a chance.

Mike: Gabbert's ineffectiveness really hurts because they thought he'd be a franchise-type quarterback when they traded up for him in 2011 (10th overall). Then they selected Blackmon in the first round this year, trading up for him (No. 5), as well. They also hired an offensive-minded head coach in Mike Mularkey, who has had success working with young quarterbacks, so a lot of what they've done has been centered on Gabbert. But you look around the league and see the impact of some other young quarterbacks -- the Lucks, Griffins and Wilsons -- and it just hasn't unfolded that way with the Jaguars. Gabbert's situation reminds me a little bit of 2002 No. 1 pick David Carr and some of his early-career struggles with the Texans. And the shame for the Jaguars is that, unlike 2012 with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III atop the draft, this year doesn't look like the same quarterback bonanza. Their marquee player is Maurice Jones-Drew, and he has missed two months of the season with a foot injury.

Tedy: It's been reported that Jones-Drew is starting to run full speed this week for the first time in two months. I would assume that would be straight-ahead running. You don't just go out there after no running for an extended period of time and start doing cutting drills. He's a great back when healthy. It sounds as if he's on his way back, but I would be very surprised if he could play.

Mike: Defensively, there just aren't a lot of players who stand out for the Jaguars. Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu was a first-round draft choice out of California in 2010, and they claimed veteran end Jason Babin on waivers a few weeks ago and he brings a pass-rushing presence off the edge. Patriots 2006 sixth-round draft choice Jeremy Mincey has found a home as a defensive end.

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Tedy: It's a fast-flow 4-3 defense that wants to create a lot of pressure without a lot of blitzing. But the Jaguars have had a lot of injuries, particularly at the linebacker level, and that has limited what defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can do. When you have concerns about the ability to play man and cover, you have to play schemes you know your defense is familiar with. They will send extra rushers, but that could limit their coverage effectiveness. This defense is clearly struggling.

Mike: At league meetings in recent years, I've had a chance to talk football with Jacksonville's general manager, Gene Smith, as well as director of player personnel Terry McDonough (son of late Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough), and have learned a lot about personnel from them. I know they were hoping to return the Jaguars to the level of prominence they had when Tom Coughlin was coaching the team in the mid-to-late 1990s, and I'm sure they're as disappointed as anyone.

Tedy: When you look at some of their struggles, it also leads to a greater appreciation for what the Patriots have done and the environment here in New England. From having played here, you know that when you're winning it's great, but even when you lose they still care enough to let you know you're terrible, or the media gets on you. I don't get the same feel in Jacksonville. It's not the same as it is in a place such as New England, or Chicago, or Philadelphia, Dallas -- those types of franchises. It's a franchise that doesn't get a lot of attention.

Mike: Let's turn the focus back to the Patriots and highlight a few of the big issues surrounding the team leading into this game, starting with playoff seeding. The loss to the 49ers was disappointing for the Patriots because they now need help for a first-round playoff bye. So in essence, they've just made life harder on themselves and likely will be hosting a game on wild-card weekend.

Tedy: I wouldn't call it devastating, but make no mistake, you want that bye. That's one less chance to be eliminated, and now you also have to go on the road if you win on that wild-card weekend -- to Houston or Denver, assuming those two teams hold their current spots. That makes it a lot tougher. So this loss to the 49ers hurts from that standpoint, and from the perspective of opening up some old wounds, some old questions about giving up the big play, and the fumbling problems with running back Stevan Ridley.

Stevan Ridley
Sit him or play him? It's the Stevan Ridley question of the week in light of his fumbling issues.

Mike: You mention Ridley, the second-year player out of LSU, and how the coaching staff proceeds with him is a compelling storyline. He's been the lead back this season, playing 45 percent of the offensive snaps, but Bill Belichick sat him down last year after some ball-security issues. If you're Belichick, do you sit him again?

Tedy: It's a shame because the book is being written on Ridley. He runs hard, but one thing you see is that he absorbs a lot of contact. He doesn't go through hits like a BenJarvus Green-Ellis used to do. He absorbs hits. When you absorb hits, the ball responds to certain pressure points and, boom, it pops out. Do you shelve him? I don't think you do. He's what you've got. Shane Vereen also fumbled. And I've seen Danny Woodhead fumble, too, and I view him as the most reliable of the three. I think what you will continue to see is a rotation, something similar to what we used to do at linebacker with me, Roman Phifer and Ted Johnson. I just don't think this is the time where you want to crush a young kid's confidence. Get him back in there, put him in situations where he can have some success, and get two weeks of good football under his belt before the playoffs start.

Mike: Let's get to our predictions. Tom Brady was talking about how, when the team loses, it makes for a long week. He said it feels like three years since they've won a game. That type of approach naturally sharpens a team's focus, and I expect the Patriots to come out strong in this game, put up some early points and roll to a victory. Patriots 41, Jaguars 14.

Tedy: Well, that feeling will end for Tom Brady this week. I will be watching this game to see how the Patriots manage their players and the situation. Do they come out and want to re-establish their brand of football and get an overwhelming win and use next week as a bye week if they end up having to play on wild-card weekend? Also, I will be watching the running back rotation and the defensive backs. These next two weeks can be used to get additional player reps. Patriots 38, Jaguars 10.