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Three in the running as Patriots' first foe

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 1, 2008

Reveling in the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history is passé for the Patriots, so 2007. It's a new year and a new season.

As coach Bill Belichick said, the next time New England steps on the field, its record will be 0-0, because a perfect regular season doesn't mean a thing in the playoffs, where it's one loss and out.

"You don't play the season to go 16-0," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "You play the season to get to the playoffs and to get to the Super Bowl. That's the final goal. This is just an added bonus."

The Patriots, who have a first-round bye, don't know whom they will play in their playoff opener at Gillette Stadium Jan. 12 at 8 p.m., but they do know it will be either the Steelers, Jaguars, or Titans, who squeaked into the playoffs as the second wild card with a 16-10 win over the uninterested Colts Sunday night.

As the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots will play the lowest remaining seed.

Fourth-seeded Pittsburgh, the AFC North champion, hosts the fifth-seeded Jaguars, the other AFC wild card, Saturday night at Heinz Field in a rematch of a regular-season game won by Jacksonville, 29-22, Dec. 16. The sixth-seeded Titans will travel to face No. 3 seed San Diego Sunday in another regular-season rematch. The Chargers pulled out a 23-17 overtime victory at LP Field in Nashville Dec. 9.

No matter what team comes into Gillette, it'll have a tough task. Not only are the Patriots 16-0 this season, they're 6-0 at home in the playoffs under Belichick.

How do the Patriots match up with their potential divisional-round opponents? Let's take a look.

Pittsburgh (10-6) - The Steelers were victim No. 13 in the Patriots' victory tour this season, getting blown out, 34-13. Tom Brady shredded Pitts burgh's top-rated defense to the tune of 399 yards and four touchdowns, making a liar out of safety Anthony Smith, who foolishly guaranteed a victory and then was victimized for two scores.

The Steelers finished the regular season first in the NFL in defense, allowing 266.4 yards per game, and second in points allowed (16.8 per game), but the Patriots scored 20 unanswered points to finish the game. However, Pittsburgh played without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who had a knee sprain.

This time around, the Steelers have Polamalu but are without running back Willie Parker (1,316 yards), who broke his leg in Pittsburgh's penultimate game of the regular season. That would put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, who threw a Steelers-record 32 touchdown passes this season and finished behind only Brady in passer rating (104.1), but was 19 of 32 for 187 yards and one score against New England.

Jacksonville (11-5) - This is the team 49ers great Jerry Rice thinks could give the Patriots the most trouble in the playoffs. Jacksonville had the second-rated rushing offense in the league (149.4 yards per game) with the tailback tandem of Fred Taylor (223 rushes for 1,202 yards and five touchdowns) and Maurice Jones-Drew (167 rushes for 768 yards and nine touchdowns).

Although New England ended up 10th in the league in run defense, teams have had success at times running the ball against the Patriots. Last season, New England pulled out a 24-21 victory in Jacksonville to clinch a playoff spot, but the Jaguars rushed for 144 yards, 131 from Jones-Drew (74 on one TD run).

The Jaguars, who lost to the Patriots, 28-3, in the playoffs two season ago, also protect the football. Their 21 turnovers were tied for fourth-fewest in the league. Quarterback David Garrard threw just three interceptions - the fewest of any starting QB this season - against 18 touchdown passes, while completing 64 percent of his passes. Garrard also led the league in third-down passing, completing 71.6 percent with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. The best defense against Brady & Co. is to keep them off the field.

Tennessee (10-6) - The Titans have gotten the job done with defense, where they have a pair of Pro Bowlers on the line in end Kyle Vanden Bosch (12 sacks) and tackle Albert Haynesworth.

Tennessee ranked in the top 10 in points per game (18.6, eighth), total defense (291.6, fifth), rushing defense (92.4, fifth), and passing defense (199.2, 10th). That offset an inconsistent Vince Young-led offense that mustered 18.8 points per game, 22d in the NFL. Young, who threw nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, reinjured his right quadriceps in the season finale against the Colts and could be hobbled.

There is still some bad blood between the Patriots and Titans from last season's regular-season finale, a 40-23 New England win, during which Rodney Harrison was lost for the playoffs after he suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee on a cut block by Bobby Wade, now a member of the Vikings.

Looking further ahead on the road to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., there are potential rematches with the archrival Colts and the revitalized Chargers, who enter the playoffs as winners of six straight and look nothing like the team that was pulverized, 38-14, by the Patriots in Week 2.

But the Patriots don't look ahead.

"It's all one-game seasons now," said Belichick. "Everybody is aware of that. We'll have to have a good week of preparation and prepare to play well against our next opponent, whoever that is. But we know that team is one of the best teams in the league. So it will be a huge challenge for us and that is what we will start getting ready for."

While 16-0 is nice, 19-0 has a certain ring to it.

"We put together the perfect regular season and I can't emphasize that enough, regular season," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "We have more that we want to accomplish and that hopefully we can accomplish."

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