The Patriots look to clinch the AFC East title and complete a perfect home slate Sunday when they host the Jaguars, who need a win to boost their fading playoff hopes.
New England (9-5) is looking to return to the postseason after missing out last year despite an 11-5 mark. With a two-game lead over Miami and the New York Jets, one win will give the Patriots the division crown.
“It doesn’t matter what everybody else does,” said coach Bill Belichick, whose club is one of three home unbeatens in the NFL along with Indianapolis and Minnesota. “If we win on Sunday, then we’ve achieved one of our goals this year.”
Tom Brady(notes) was spectacular the last time New England faced Jacksonville (7-7), completing 26 of 28 passes with three touchdowns in a 31-20 divisional playoff victory two years ago. The Patriots improved to 7-1 all-time against the Jaguars, including 4-0 in the regular season and 5-0 in Foxborough.
Of course, New England’s offense isn’t quite the same as in the record-setting season of 2007, in which Brady threw for 50 touchdowns and the Patriots became the first NFL team to finish a 16-game schedule undefeated. Brady has a total of 307 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions over his last two games.
“I think we did a lot of great things, obviously, offensively in ’07,” Brady said. “We had a lot of great things that went our way and the offense always takes on a different identity every year. This year our identity is certainly different than it was last year and the year before that, and with the new players and with the new scheme, different teams, different opponents, different game planning.”
While New England has been perfect at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots earned their first road win in the United States last Sunday with a 17-10 victory at Buffalo. That result, coupled with losses by the Jets and Miami, put New England on the brink of its sixth division crown in seven years.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, is searching for answers after losing three of four following a 6-4 start. The Jaguars, who trail Denver and Baltimore by one game in the race for wild-card spots, would be eliminated this weekend with a loss and wins by the Broncos and Ravens.
“They can’t be must-wins and you keep losing,” quarterback David Garrard(notes) said. “They’ve got to be must-wins and you win one. That time is here and hopefully it happens this weekend, but there are no guarantees.”
The Patriots, whose defense has been suspect at times this season, have yielded a total of 20 points in back-to-back wins. They are ready to face a different kind of challenge in Garrard.
Garrard’s 13 touchdown passes rank him last among quarterbacks who have started every game, but he’s second in the league among signal callers with 273 yards rushing and two scores.
The Jaguars also feature the NFL’s third-leading rusher in Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), who has a career-high 1,246 yards and is tied with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson with 15 rushing touchdowns. Jones-Drew ran for 110 yards and a score in last Thursday’s 35-31 loss to Indianapolis.
Jones-Drew has established himself as the top runner for the Jaguars, who released Fred Taylor(notes) after the 2008 season. Taylor spent his first 11 seasons with Jacksonville, becoming the franchise’s leading rusher with 11,271 yards before signing with the Patriots.
Taylor could face his former team after missing the last 10 games with an ankle injury. He participated fully in practice Wednesday for the first time since being sidelined.
“I think the organization felt great about the contributions he made here for the time that he was here,” Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said, “but it was time for more of Maurice, so that’s what we elected to do. And he’s delivered and had a great year for us.”
Del Rio’s defense, though, is last in the NFL with 14 sacks and has three rookie starters, including cornerback Derek Cox(notes). He’ll likely get some time defending to Randy Moss(notes), who is tied for fifth in the league with 1,144 yards receiving and has 74 catches, 10 for touchdowns.
“It’s not like I can get away from that,” Cox said. “I’ve seen these guys before on TV. I’m not in awe at all. I’m here to play football.”
New England could get back both nose tackle Vince Wilfork(notes), who missed last Sunday’s game with a foot injury, and defensive end Ty Warren(notes), who sat out with an ankle injury. The defensive stalwarts returned to practice Wednesday.
Although the Patriots haven’t displayed the type of dominance they did at times earlier this decade, they still feel they can get healthy and come through with another memorable run in the playoffs.
“I don’t want to think it’s a wasted year because we’re not undefeated,” Brady said. “That’s not really the goal at the beginning of the year anyway. The goal is to win the division and put yourself in a position in the playoffs, and we have a great opportunity for that.”