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ON FOOTBALL

Win will be scratched out

FOXBOROUGH -- They haven't seen much of them this season, but the New England Patriots already know all they need to know about the Jacksonville Jaguars.

''I know they won 11 games," linebacker Willie McGinest said of Saturday night's AFC wild-card playoff opponent before Jacksonville improved that to 12 wins, six on the road, last night.

You win 12 games in the National Football League and it says something about you to a veteran team like the Patriots. It says you will not be impressed by New England's extensive jewelry collection or mantel full of silver trophies with the name Lombardi on the front. It says that only one thing can bounce them from the AFC playoffs, and it won't be the Patriots' recent postseason record, which is 9-0 since the last time they lost a playoff game. It won't be the Patriots' reputation, or the Jaguars' lack of one that affects the outcome. It will be who breaks whose will.

''I don't know nothing about them," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said of the Jaguars. ''Well, I know one thing. Nobody's going to bow down to us . . . and we're not going to bow down to nobody."

What Wilfork meant was that he knows what to expect without knowing yet what's coming from the Jaguars. What he can expect is being a participant in a street fight. A player in a different brand of football, the smash-mouth variety. The kind of football that only is played when the season comes down to one-and-done, which is about as elementary as it can get.

''It's a whole different season," defensive end Ty Warren said of the Patriots' third straight entry into the playoffs. ''We're all at ground zero now. Now the bullets really start flying."

But who will be pulling the trigger for the Jaguars, Byron Leftwich or David Garrard? Who will be their big gun with the run, Fred Taylor or reserve LaBrandon Toefield, the other L.T. who replaced a limping F.T. in the Jagaurs backfield yesterday? Who will catch the long ball when it's thrown? Is Jimmy Smith still there? Yes, but what about the other guy who torched the Patriots in the last playoff loss they suffered, a 25-10 defeat to the same but very different Jaguars Jan. 3, 1999? Where's Keenan McCardell? He's gone, but a guy named Ernest Wilford and a rookie quarterback turned wide receiver named Matt Jones have taken his place well enough to score 10 touchdowns between them, so now guys like McGinest and Tedy Bruschi, who still remember that 1999 defeat, have to learn about them.

What do those names mean to the Patriots? At the moment not much, but that's because they haven't seen them yet. Haven't watched them on tape or studied the DVDs they'll be given later this week showing Jacksonviille's tendencies in every situation imaginable.

Haven't seen them play a snap yet, but they don't need to do that to understand what they'll be up against at Razor Blade Field, which will be a cold and forbidding place for anyone from Jacksonville Saturday night.

''Just from looking at them from afar we know they're a tough, physical football team that has a good defense and likes to run the football," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''This will be exciting. It starts Saturday. We'll be ready to play."

So will the Jaguars, who have shown their resilience in two ways all year. They've repeatedly come from behind to snatch victories from opponents who thought they had them beat, and they've won those six times on the road, which shows an ability to put all distractions aside and concentrate on the only thing that matters this time of year, winning.

By the end of the week the Patriots will know all about Leftwich, who is recovering from a broken ankle, and Garrard, who replaced him admirably Nov. 27 to lead the Jaguars to four wins in five games, including a three-game winning streak into the postseason.

Had they ended up facing either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Kansas City Chiefs, the teams vying for the final playoff slot when the day began, the Patriots would have been much more familiar with their personnel, having played both this season and the Steelers so many times the past few years there's little they could do to surprise them. That is not the case with these Jaguars, but that hardly seemed to matter to the men in red, white, and blue yesterday as they began to prepare for the Jags only hours after ending the regular season with a meaningless 28-26 loss to the Dolphins.

''It'll be important to get film on them tonight or tomorrow morning because the sooner we get to know them the better," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. ''I know they've got a big running back in Taylor."

Vrabel, like the rest of the Patriots, was philosophical, however. By Saturday night he knows he and his teammates will be prepared. They will be well aware of everything the Jaguars like to do and what makes them most uncomfortable. They will know their ins and outs and everything in-between. They will, in short, be as prepared to face them as they would have been the more familiar Steelers and Chiefs. They'll be more experienced in this whole playoff hysteria than the Jags, too, but experience, like familiarity with your opponent, is in Vrabel's opinion of little import.

''The best team is going to win in the playoffs," Vrabel said. ''Teams that are able to run the ball, not turn the ball over, and who play good defense and force turnovers win. I don't put a lot into playoff experience. We've won a lot in the playoffs, but we also played pretty well."

To unseat the defending Super Bowl champions, the Jaguars will have to exceed the Patriots' ability in those areas, and that won't be based on playoff experience or how familiar they are with each other. It will come down to what it always comes down to when it's one-and-done. It will come down to who does the work between now and Saturday night best and who translates that into action when the bullets Warren was talking about start flying.

''We've got a poster around here that says 'Battles are won before they're fought,' " linebacker Chad Brown said. ''All I know about the Jaguars is I read last week Leftwich practiced a little bit. Familiarity doesn't make any difference. This is the playoffs. Who prepares the most and plays the best moves on. We understand that here."

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