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ON FOOTBALL

His position -- Difference was QB

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The difference between the teams was the quarterback position. Or, rather, the men playing that position.

Nothing else separated the Patriots from the Jaguars yesterday. There was little to pick between their ill-tempered defenses, and not enough of a difference in their running games to decide the outcome. New England's rookie kicker nearly made the difference in an alarming way, missing a field goal that set up one Jaguars touchdown and launching a kickoff out of bounds that gave them the ball at their 40 late in the fourth quarter to set up another score. But, in the end, not even the wayward foot of Stephen Gostkowski settled things between the teams.

Yesterday the Patriots escaped Alltel Stadium with their lives and the AFC East divisional championship by holding off the Jaguars, 24-21, and the reason that happened was Tom Brady. Or, depending on your point of view, David Garrard.

Brady was far from spectacular against one of the toughest defenses in the AFC, but the things he did do were more important than being spectacular. He was careful when he needed to be careful. And he was bold when he needed to be bold. Garrard, on the other hand, was not.

Brady finished 28 of 39 for 249 yards and a score. He never turned the ball over and was sacked only once, although he was forced to scramble a number of times. Garrard was 17 of 23 for 195 yards and a score but he made a crucial blunder with his team trying to drive for the winning score when he fumbled while pump-faking on the run and coughed the ball up when Jarvis Green hit him from behind. It was the kind of mistake Brady seldom makes.

With less than two minutes to play and Jacksonville needing only a field goal to tie, or a touchdown to take the lead, Garrard should have understood the situation he was facing. Starting at its 45, Jacksonville needed only to travel about 25 yards to be all but sure of tying the score and needed only 55 yards to win it, and the Jaguars had 1:55 to do it. With that much time, no single play was all that important. What was important was to stay alive.

Yet on first down, with things breaking down all around him almost from the snap, Garrard tried to scramble, which is probably what he does best. But as the pocket collapsed, he should have anticipated he likely would be hit as he tried to find an opening, and he should have made his first thought protecting the ball and living to fight another down.

What he needed to be on that play was what Brady was much of the day. He needed to be careful. He tried to be spectacular. He was not.

Garrard tried to pump-fake as he ran, with bodies all around him, and as he did he was hit from behind and the ball shot out of his hand. It rolled right to Rodney Harrison, tumbling like a slow ground ball to second base. All Harrison had to do was fall on it and the game was over, which he did.

That is the difference between Brady and so many of his peers. He seldom tries to do too much. He always seems to understand the situation, even if it calls for a ball to be thrown out of bounds or into the ground or for him to hit the ground and try again on the next play. Yesterday was that kind of day, a hard-fought, slug-it-out day in which two defenses dominated most of the afternoon but one never dominated Brady.

Garrard's turnover was the most obvious difference between them, but perhaps not the most important, despite its significance. The real difference was in the little things, like Brady converting 50 percent on third down to Garrard's 42 percent. In a game as tightly contested as yesterday's, that was significant, because it allowed New England to hold a commanding difference of 14 minutes and 26 seconds in time of possession.

That difference meant the Jaguars' stifling defense was on the field for nearly a quarter longer than the Patriots', and it showed late in the game when somehow Jacksonville's run defense, which had limited New England to only 59 yards on the ground minus the 31 Brady had gained scrambling, broke down. Laurence Maroney shot through the left side untouched and ran for a 27-yard touchdown, which proved to be the winning score.

For one instant a tiring defense lost focus. For one moment it took a deep breath when it could not afford to. That moment was as much a result of Brady's ability to convert on third down and keep them on the field for long stretches as any other factor -- although there was some great blocking up front that opened a gaping hole in the Jags' front.

Garrard answered with a 33-yard touchdown pass, but it left his team 3 points short, where it'd been since the second quarter. Always close. Always nipping at the Patriots' heels. But Garrard never quite able to make the one more play he needed to make to get his team past Brady's.

Of the six third downs Brady had a direct hand in converting (three passing and three running), four occurred on New England's three touchdown drives. For Brady to make such plays with his arm has become yesterday's news because he has done it so often. But we are not talking about Michael Vick, who became the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season yesterday, or even Steve Grogan. We're also not comparing his movement to moving a sofa, but Brady on the run does remind one of shifting a few wing chairs around the living room at best.

He is not elusive by any stretch, but against Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher a few weeks ago he was just that on the one play on which he needed to be. He is not adroit at avoiding tacklers, but several times he was yesterday against one of the AFC's best-tackling defenses, because he needed to be to ensure he got enough yardage to keep a drive alive.

He was, in other words, the difference between the teams. He was what Garrard could not be. He was the guy who carried the load, and his team, when it was needed.

Garrard, a substitute for injured starter Byron Leftwich who has played well enough to cause a controversy in Jacksonville lately, did his best. He made the game interesting.

But when it came to the plays that needed to be made, the big ones and the small ones and most of all the one that needed to be avoided, Garrard didn't make as many as Brady. Which is why the Patriots locked up a playoff spot yesterday and the Jaguars were left with coal in their stocking and only the slimmest of chances to get a rematch with the Patriots this season.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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