The Jaguars have been here before.
It was 11 years ago this month that we witnessed an upset for the ages, thanks to the second-year Jacksonville franchise. Still in their NFL infancy, the Jaguars, coming off their first franchise playoff victory the previous weekend over the Buffalo Bills, marched into Denver and took down the mighty 13-3 Broncos, delaying John Elway’s quest for Lombardi one more year.
Much like the Patriots are considered a shoo-in for Arizona this time around, so too were the Broncos generally thought a Super Bowl lock. Instead, the Patriots found themselves hosting the AFC title game a week later against the Jaguars, and soon were off to their second Super Bowl appearance in team history.
That being said, nobody realistically believes history will repeat itself Saturday night in Foxborough. Even the most ardent Jaguars fans (all 46 of them) have to understand that their team’s season will end with a thud this weekend, the initial sacrificial lamb in the Patriots’ run at playoff perfection.
Of course, the Jaguars aren’t expected to win this weekend against the 16-0 Patriots. And as luck would have it, they won’t.
The Patriots are 2-1 all-time against Jacksonville in the playoffs. The victories came in the 1996 AFC Championship Game and in the wild card round two years ago, when the Jaguars were similarly toasted as the upstart team of the moment. Remember what happened? The Cold, Hard, Football Facts folks reminisce:
The Jaguars are good. The Jaguars are hot. The Jaguars are popular. The Jaguars are a plucky little upstart team led by the Cinderella of the 2007 season, quarterback David Garrard, who plays smartly and makes few mistakes. But, remember, we saw a similar story back in 2005.
The Jaguars were good. The Jaguars were hot. The Jaguars were led by a quarterback who made few mistakes (Byron Leftwich tossed 15 TDs and 5 picks in 2005).
The Jaguars were also 12-4, one game better than this year’s 11-5 squad. They walked into Foxboro to battle the 10-6 Patriots -- and were totally outclassed, 28-3.
We don’t see 2007 being any different. The 2007 Patriots are far superior to the 2005 Patriots. And the 2007 Jaguars are at just about the same place as the 2005 Jaguars. But stranger things have happened. And approximately 96 percent of the nation will be rooting for stranger things to happen Saturday night.
Oh sure, the physical nature of the Jaguars leaves some glimmer of hope that true perfection won’t be achieved. But not much. As Charles Bricker of the Florida Sun-Sentinel points out, the Jaguars might have the ingredients to give the Patriots a scare, but won’t be able to find the kitchen.
“The only way to back those defenders off is to counter with effective passing, which is how the Giants built a 12-point lead against New England on Dec. 29 before losing,” Bricker writes. “Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes against the Patriots. But he's better than Jacksonville's David Garrard, who has emerged as a dependable quarterback but who is not going to beat New England throwing 40 to 50 times.”
In Saturday’s playoff squeaker over Pittsburgh, Garrard was a paltry 9 for 21, with just 140 yards passing and two interceptions. Garrard had tossed only three picks all season prior to last weekend, and all three came in the final four games of the season.
Think that sounds like the kind of quarterback that will keep Bill Belichick up at night?
The Jaguars come into Foxborough playing with house money, as one Jacksonville writer puts it. They’re not expected to knock off the mighty Patriots, so anything they do from here on out is bonus material. If they give them a game, maybe that’s good enough, if indeed surprising enough. The Jaguars employ one of the game's best running tandems in Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, but once the Patriots focus on taking that away, it's going to be up to Garrard to beat New England with his arm. After that, pretty much the only drama the rest of the evening will be whether Belichick decides to punish Paul Spicer in any way.
Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk? Advantage Jaguars.
Garrard and Ernest Wilford vs. Tom Brady and Randy Moss? Seriously? We're still having any discussion as to whether they can pull the upset?
As good of a game as the Jaguars and Steelers delivered to us Saturday night, they didn’t really win with authority. A few more people in the right place for the Steelers, and we’ve got Anthony Smith stammering into a microphone much of this week.
Or maybe if Ben Roethlisberger threw one fewer interception...
Or maybe if Mike Tomlin decided to kick the extra point rather than go for a longshot two after a holding penalty...
Let's face it, it's not like Jacksonville steamrolled its way over the Steelers for their date this weekend. And if you expect the Patriots to make similar mistakes, well, that just doesn't happen.
The Jaguars have had themselves quite a playoff history, starting with their 1996 run. Their last playoff victory prior to Saturday came in 1999, a 62-7 thrashing of the Dolphins that happened to be Dan Marino's final game.
On Saturday, they have a chance to be part of NFL history again. Unfortunately for them, it will be as a footnote in the Patriots' charge to it rather than making it themselves.
If the Patriots are indeed to lose this month, it will be to the Colts next weekend and nobody else. Certainly not the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After the game Saturday, Peter King caught up with Garrard as he hopped on the team bus:
"Can you beat New England?'' I asked. (I wasn't sure at the moment that New England would be the foe, but I wanted to hear his thoughts anyway.)
"We're going to have to be near-perfect,'' he said, "but if we bring our A-game, we can beat anybody.''
"But you love the chance, don't you,'' I said.
"I really do,'' he said. “How can you not?''