The Patriots have spent a lot of time since Saturday night stating they did not play that well in their easier than expected 28-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars to begin the playoffs. But the simple fact is, if they can play better than they did, they have an excellent chance of becoming the first team to win three straight Super Bowls. They played a very good game. And while it was undoubtedly not perfect, it was good enough to think the team is continuing to get better week in and week out and can beat any of the remaining opponents out there. They are resembling their championship teams more and more every week.
On offense, the Patriots got off to a little bit of a slow start. They couldn’t run the ball out of conventional sets, though they did have a couple nice ones from Kevin Faulk on a few plays. They had some penalties. They had some drops. But in the second half, they had several excellent drives that helped put the game away, including the outstanding catch and run by Ben Watson that left the Jaguars shell shocked.
The offensive line did struggle a bit at times both run and pass blocking. But that was more a function of the excellent Jacksonville defense that is particularly stout against up the middle. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, the two massive Pro Bowl defensive tackles in the middle of the Jaguars defensive line, lived up to their billing and gave the Patriots all they could handle well into the third quarter.
But the offense did enough to win the game. Tom Brady, while not playing one of his better games, was efficient and made some good throws. He didn’t turn the ball over. Kevin Faulk, as mentioned above, made some plays as did Deion Branch and Ben Watson. Branch did have one big drop that could have changed the game, however, and they won’t be able to get away with mistakes like that on the road against the teams coming up the next few weeks.
On defense, this was the most encouraging aspect of the game. The Patriots played a dominant game. The game I saw featured Jacksonville committed to slinging the ball all over the field all night. The game I saw had Jacksonville hitting a couple plays here and there, but also with their quarterback constantly under duress, their receivers generally covered up, taking big hits when they did get the ball and not putting a lot of points on the board. That wasn’t just the front seven that did it. It was the secondary as well and all the guys back there had very good games against some good receivers. Eugene Wilson, who appeared lost for four or five games after Rodney Harrison got hurt, is now back to his former borderline Pro Bowl self and playing very well.
Up front, the Patriots were dominant again. They bottled up the run early pretty effectively. The only big runs Jacksonville had were on broken play scrambles. When Jacksonville passed, they rushed, harassed and disrupted both the quarterbacks and receivers all night long. Willie McGinest, with four and a half sacks, had an amazing night and nearly got a few more sacks. It seemed every time you turned around, Leftwich was being harassed by McGinest. Roosevelt Colvin on the other side was nearly as good. And, surprisingly, we saw extended action from Chad Brown on sub-defenses and he seemed to show up a few times as well. It was particularly surprising from him as he has been used spraingly for months now. Watching him being used the way he was made me think “where was this all year long?” The same can be said of Troy Brown at defensive back and a number of other wrinkles both offensively and defensively. The Patriots clearly saved a few moves for the playoffs and its enough to wonder what else they have up their sleeves as the playoffs continue along.
Special teams had a pretty good night. An effective pooch punt from Adam Vinatierri helped get Jacksonville backed up and out of their game plan early on which got them off to a confidence hurting slow start. The coverage was good and there were a couple decent returns as well. Andre Davis showed particularly good coverage, which was also surprising as he didn’t stand out on coverage much during the regular season, if at all.
All and all, a very impressive night for the Patriots. They can downplay it if they want, but they played a very good game against a physical, tough opponent and pulled away in the second half. They very well may need to play better against the Indianpolises and Denvers of the NFL. But there are a lot of signs there they will do just that and haven’t even fired all their guns yet (Tedy Bruschi sat out and Daniel Graham played sparingly). Now if they could only get their running game going decently, they’d really be onto something. We’ll be back in a few days with a preview of what should be the game of the year as the Patriots travel to Denver for the divisional playoffs.