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MIDWEEK REPORT

A playoff possibility, Jaguars would be dangerous foe

Things can change rapidly in the NFL, but barring something drastic, the Patriots are headed for a first-round playoff game against the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.

It'll be a tough matchup to predict, because even though the teams will have very good records, there will be no real measure of how strong or weak they are.

''That's a long way off," said Jaguars offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, a former coach under Pete Carroll in New England. ''We've got Indy ahead, and everything we're doing is devoted toward Indy."

The Patriots play only one winning team the rest of the way (Tampa Bay, at Foxborough) and could wrap up the AFC East this weekend -- with three games to play -- if they beat Buffalo and Miami loses to San Diego.

The Jaguars, who are 9-3 and on track to finish as the fifth seed in the AFC, have their biggest game of the regular season coming up Sunday against the Colts at Alltell Stadium. They could not only ruin Indianapolis's perfect season but add a tremendous amount of self-esteem, something the Patriots could not do.

The Jaguars lost to the Colts, 10-3, in Week 2 with No. 1 quarterback Byron Leftwich, but he broke his left ankle Nov. 27 against Arizona and is probably out for the regular season.

The Jaguars came back to beat the Browns in Cleveland last week, 20-14, with backup quarterback David Garrard and backup running back Greg Jones, who has strung together two 100-yard games in the absence of Fred Taylor (ankle injury).

After Indianapolis, the Jaguars play their final three games against San Francisco, Houston, and Tennessee, who have combined for six wins.

The Jaguars have won five straight, the last three on the road. They've also been able to win in cold-weather games: last Sunday's temperature in Cleveland was 28 degrees, and the Jaguars won in Green Bay last year when it was 12 degrees.

Both the Patriots and Jaguars have proven that they can beat bad teams, which is why an above-average team like the Bucs should give Patriots Nation some measure of how far the team has come from its midseason doldrums.

The Jaguars are 3-2 against teams with winning records, the Patriots 2-5.

Of course, it's all about momentum, home field, and experience.

The Patriots are playing much better, even though the Jets are hardly a gauge of how they stack up with the rest of the conference. The Bills, who are 4-2 at home, could provide a clearer assessment -- unless the tough loss in the final seconds at Miami last Sunday completely demoralized them.

''The Patriots are playing well," said Jets coach Herm Edwards. ''They're getting their team together. You can see that. They're starting to do things defensively they weren't doing earlier in the year, and that's a sign they're getting healthier and more comfortable with each other. They showed us a lot of looks. They blitzed us quite a bit.

''Their offense with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk, an excellent change-of-pace back, is going to give teams a lot of problems in the postseason."

The ''peaking at the right time" theme is beginning to take hold with the Patriots.

The Jets game was a snoozer, but things are looking up on defense. Except for the loss of Rodney Harrison, the Patriots are pretty healthy. Young cornerback Ellis Hobbs is beginning to open eyes around the league as someone who is going to play physical. At this point, you'd likely take Hobbs over Tyrone Poole or Duane Starks.

''Hobbs looks like he's going to be a good player," said Jets cornerback Ty Law. ''I've heard good things about him. He played pretty well."

The defense is starting to stuff the run. The Patriots have gone from one of the worst run defenses early in the season to middle of the pack.

On the other hand, the Jaguars' defensive line would give the Patriots' offensive line a lot to handle. Tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are huge loads. The Jaguars have 37 sacks, registering at least two in every game except for the Colts game, when they were shut out. The Jaguars have also forced 12 fumbles and picked off 16 passes. The secondary has allowed only 25 passes of 20 or more yards and only five passes of 20 or more yards for touchdowns, all among the top 10 in football.

On offense, though, they have lost their starting quarterback, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Garrard pulled himself together in the second half against the Browns after a poor second quarter, but the Jaguars are just hoping he can keep the position warm for Leftwich, who may not be back in time to face the Patriots in the first round.

''I think our team is very confident with David," said Boudreau. ''He's like [Daunte] Culpepper or Steve McNair in that he can beat you with his legs if he has to. He has that escapability factor going for him, so he can buy himself a little bit more time avoiding the rush. He adds the bootleg dimension to our offense."

New England and Jacksonville haven't faced each other in the playoffs since Jan. 3, 1999, when Tom Coughlin's Jaguars beat the Pete Carroll Patriots, 25-10, at Alltell Stadium. Taylor ran for 162 yards and Mark Brunell broke open a close game with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith.

They also met in the 1996 AFC Championship game, when the Bill Parcells-led Patriots won, 20-6, sealing it with a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Otis Smith in the fourth quarter.

Suffice to say, this won't be an easy playoff game for the Patriots.

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