JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Any procrastinating Patriots fans considering a last-minute run to the store to finish (or start) their Christmas shopping probably figured they’d be able to confidently ditch Sunday’s game with the Jaguars by halftime.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Halftime turned into the third quarter, which turned into the fourth quarter, which turned into the game’s final play. The Patriots’ defense, caught off guard with a few body blows in the first 15 minutes, needed to come up with not one but two red-zone stops down the stretch to preserve a tougher-than-expected 23-16 win over the hapless Jaguars.
Each of Jacksonville’s final two drives ended with interceptions, both by Patriots safety Patrick Chung. The first came near the goal line with 3:14 left in the fourth quarter. The second was in the end zone, on the last play of the game.
The Patriots’ 11th win of the season was certainly not pretty, but style points are sometimes like the holiday season’s hottest gift: on everybody’s wish list, but quite difficult to find.
“I think it’s a little disappointing for us that we know we didn’t play as good as we could have played,” said Devin McCourty, who switched from safety to cornerback because of injuries to Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib. “We know we’ve got to play better, no matter what. It’s better to come out of here when you’re not at your best and get a win.”
With the league’s top-ranked offense struggling to score against the 31st-ranked defense, it was left to the Patriots’ defense to stop the upset-minded Jaguars, who had gashed New England for 202 yards and 10 points in the first quarter.
Twice in the final four minutes Jacksonville drove inside New England’s 20-yard line trailing by 7, and twice it failed to tie the game.
When it mattered most, the Patriots finally applied pressure on Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne. After Jacksonville was penalized 5 yards for illegal motion — a costly penalty that pushed the ball from the Patriots’ 1-yard line to the 6 — Henne was sacked for the only time in the game, with rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower coming in clean and bringing him down for a 5-yard loss.
On the next play, now fourth and goal from the 11, Henne was pressured again, this time by rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who made contact with the quarterback’s arm just as he was throwing, disrupting the pass that Chung grabbed in the middle of the field at the goal line.
After the Patriots were forced to punt, the Jaguars had one final chance in the last minute. The drive started with Chung being penalized 15 yards on the first play for hitting a defenseless receiver. It ended with him catching Henne’s last-gasp heave in the end zone on the last play, after the Jaguars had driven to the Patriots’ 12. Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich brought the heat this time, forcing Henne to throw earlier than he would have liked.
“Your mind-set when they get in the red zone is don’t let them in the end zone. We were able to do that a couple times, not let them score, which was huge,” Ninkovich said. “You’ve got to give credit to Jacksonville, they put a good game plan together, they were able to move the ball on us.”
Two Tom Brady interceptions didn’t help, but the Patriots spotted the Jaguars 10 points after two Jacksonville drives. The Jaguars almost scored on their third possession, too, but Josh Scobee missed a 43-yard field goal try. By then, if they didn’t have it before, they had the Patriots’ attention.
“We took the blow and bounced back from it,” defensive lineman Justin Francis said. “That’s what a tough team does.”
Said Chung: “They started faster than us. We just got to get our composure back and just play ball.”
They did that in the middle 30 minutes. After allowing Jacksonville those 202 yards in the first quarter, the Patriots held the Jaguars to only 83 yards over the next two, erasing the early 10-point deficit and then building a 10-point lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Up 10 in the fourth quarter against the two-win Jaguars? Some Patriots fans might have headed for the mall at that point, but they would have missed a nail-biting finish, and two key interceptions by Chung.
“I was just saying, ‘Turnover, turnover, turnover,’ and make a big play,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “And Patrick came up with two big ones for us.”