Injuries in the secondary led to some position and playing-time changes for the Patriots against the Jaguars last Sunday, but the defensive backfield responded with three interceptions.
Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard stayed home with hamstring and knee injuries, and cornerback Aqib Talib was limited to just eight defensive snaps. Talib has been dealing with a hip injury he suffered Dec. 10, and needed to convince a large contingent of Patriots personnel — including coach Bill Belichick — during a pregame workout that he was healthy enough to play.
With Dennard out and Talib playing hurt, the Patriots moved Devin McCourty from safety back to cornerback, with Patrick Chung getting the start at safety. When the Jaguars opened in the spread offense, Marquice Cole also got a starting nod as the fifth defensive back.
Chung and Cole had a big impact in the 23-16 win. Chung had end zone interceptions on the Jaguars’ final two drives (one of which ended the game) for the first two-interception game of his career, and Cole had his first interception of the season, just the second of his career.
“Whenever my number’s called, I just go out there and try to make plays,” Cole said. “[The interception was a] routine play; I just did my job and a good thing happened to me.”
Since one starter was out and another was limited, was Cole confident he’d get more playing time?
“I’m a football player, so of course I know if I go out there, I’m going to be able to perform,” said Cole, who played 57 of the Patriots’ 79 defensive snaps.
Just a false start
After a pair of prime-time home games against marquee opponents (Houston and San Francisco), it might have been easy for the Patriots to not take the 2-12 Jaguars seriously.
The way the game started — Jacksonville marched downfield for an opening-possession touchdown, forced a turnover, then kicked a field goal for a surprising 10-0 lead — could be seen as evidence of that, but Rob Ninkovich insisted that wasn’t the case.
“You don’t ever want to say you took somebody lightly, because in the National Football League, everybody’s talented — there’s good players throughout this whole league,” Ninkovich said.
“Early in the game, we just gave them too many opportunities to move the ball on us, then we had a couple turnovers early that set them up to put some points on the board.”
That’s pushing it
Television cameras might have cut away from it, but Patriots guard Logan Mankins and Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey engaged in a heated pushing-and-shoving exchange following a play. No flags were thrown, but Mankins and Mincey certainly didn’t appear to be exchanging pleasantries. Or were they? “Well, I was just saying, ‘Hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. How do you like Jacksonville?’ ” Mankins said. “So we were just catching up. We were just playing around.”
The Patriots rank first in the NFL in six team categories: lowest percentage of passes intercepted, first downs per game, third-down efficiency, yards per game, points per game, and points per game differential. They are last in the league in just one category: gross punting average . . . After gaining 23 first downs against the Jaguars, the Patriots are at 416 for the season, which ties the 2011 Saints for the most in a season. The first one against Miami Sunday will give the Patriots the record . . . If he throws three touchdown passes against the Dolphins, Tom Brady will become the first quarterback in league history with 35 touchdown passes in four seasons. Brady had 50 scoring tosses in 2007, 36 in 2010, and 39 last season. Brett Favre (38 in 1995, 39 in 1996, and 35 in 1997) is the only other player with three seasons of at least 35 touchdown passes.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@ globe.com.