Patriots Almost Perfect

Tom Brady (AP Photo)

The road to the Super Bowl is never easy, and the Patriots have been telling anyone who would listen that was the case. Despite their protests of tough games ahead, the oddsmakers continue to list them as double-digit favorites. New England used a near-perfect performance by it's leader to take one step closer to the perfect season by knocking off one of those "tough" opponents.

It was tougher than most people thought it would be but the Patriots defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars Saturday night, 31-20, to advance to the AFC Championship Game. New England will face the San Diego Chargers, for the right to play for a Super Bowl title.

Jacksonville came into the game intent on preventing the big plays that the Patriots burned so many opponents with throughout a year in which they set a new NFL record for points scored. So rather than force the ball downfield, Tom Brady sat patiently in the pocket and picked apart a Jags secondary that had no answers for the reigning league MVP.

After being sacked the very first time he dropped back, Brady was hardly rushed the rest of the night. And Brady's 28 passes hit the turf only one more time than he did. That wasn't a misprint: Brady completed 26-of-28 throws for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

Laurence Maroney provided plenty of balance by carving his way to the first 100-yard game of his postseason career. He finished with 122 yards on 22 carries and also picked up his first playoff touchdown.

"Is that what he was? That's pretty good I guess," center Dan Koppen said of his quarterback. "It wasn't a big pressure game for us so it was one of those games where we had to give Tommy time and open up some holes in the running game. They know how to play their defense. They're good at what they do and they don't give up the big play so you have to just grind it out and methodically move the chains and keep it going. They don't really give you anything."

Two factors made the offense's performance even more impressive. The first was the fact that Randy Moss was limited to one catch for 14 yards, although that catch did come on the aforementioned fourth down to keep a touchdown drive alive.

But more important, the Patriots needed virtually every yard of every drive the group mounted. That's because things weren't going quite as well on the other side of the ball where the supposedly run-oriented, conservative Jags were pretty much just as unstoppable through the air.

Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard (22-of-33, 278 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) may have thrown a few more incompletions than his more celebrated counterpart, but he was nearly as effective. He hit 12 of his 14 first-half attempts for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But as well as Garrard played, he wasn't even the best quarterback on the field Saturday night.

Even Garrard was impressed watching his counterpart from the sideline.

"I looked up at the scoreboard at one time and he was 16-for-16," Garrard said in disbelief. "He's just so efficient. He always seems to find the open guy and even gets the ball in there when his receivers are covered. He's a tremendous leader."

Rodney Harrison eventually put the cap on the night by picking off a late Garrard pass to seal the win. It was Harrison's seventh career postseason pick with the Patriots, which is a team record. Also, it marked his fourth straight playoff game with at least one interception, which ties an NFL record set by Aeneas Williams.

"It was a good win tonight. Jacksonville's a good football team. They certainly gave us all we could handle," coach Bill Belichick said. "We're on to next week. We know they're going to keep getting tougher from here."

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