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Samuel picks his moment to step up

FOXBOROUGH -- As Asante Samuel raced down the field, a Byron Leftwich interception in hand, Willie McGinest raised his arms triumphantly toward the sky. The wily veteran has played in enough big games to know when a big punch has been landed.

Last night, Samuel delivered such a blow to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Samuel's 73-yard interception return on the first play of the fourth quarter put New England up, 28-3, and effectively ended Jacksonville's season, at Gillette Stadium.

Samuel didn't have to see McGinest celebrating to know that he had pulled the plug on Jacksonville's postseason with one swift play.

''I think it was kind of like a knockout blow," said Samuel of his interception return, the second longest in franchise playoff history, trailing only an 87-yard effort by Rodney Harrison in the 2004 AFC Championship game.

''It took the wind out of them."

Trailing, 21-3, Jacksonville faced fourth and 5 at the New England 32. Leftwich dropped back to pass, looking for wide receiver Reggie Williams. But instead, Samuel peeled off of his man and jumped the route. The dreadlocked defensive back then outran Leftwich 73 yards down the sideline to pay dirt.

''It was a great play by 'Sante," said safety Eugene Wilson. ''He read the quarterback great, set him up for it, picked it off, and took it to the house. It was a great play."

Said Samuel, ''Once I caught it and had it, I knew I was going to the house. I wasn't going to let the quarterback catch me. If he would have caught me, man, I would have never heard the end of it, so I knew I had to win."

Samuel won the footrace and, in the process, helped send the Jaguars home losers. He also brought a measure of redemption to a maligned New England secondary, which had been criticized for giving up big plays and not making enough of them this season.

Wilson, the de facto leader of the defensive backs with Harrison out for the season, said Samuel's play highlighted a great showing from the entire defensive backfield.

''We've had our ups and downs this season, but as of late we've played real well," said Wilson. ''Everybody was on the right page today, doing the right thing, and it paid off."

Ironically, leading up to Samuel's big play, head coach Bill Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, were not on the same play regarding the defensive call.

Samuel said they were debating which coverage to go to. The third-year defensive back said that on his fateful play he was playing man-trap coverage.

''I was reading the quarterback. I saw a man break out and I kind of baited him into it," said Samuel. ''I read his eyes and his receivers. It was a go and an out [underneath] and I just came off my man and took it."

After the game, Belichick gave credit to Mangini.

''That was a great call by Eric in that situation," said Belichick. ''Asante made a nice play on the ball and caught it -- for a change. He's dropped a lot of them this year. He made that play and outran the quarterback.

''I thought it was a perfect call against that pattern and it was a good job disguising it by Asante; he wheeled into the pattern late. It was a nice play."

Samuel, who had three interceptions during the regular season, said that, after a season that was at times a rough one for the secondary, the playoffs are a fresh start.

''There's always going to be critics," said Samuel, in his third year out of Central Florida. ''We have to block that out and go play Patriots ball. Play how we know how to play.

''It's playoff time, we've got to take it to another level."

Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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