The Patriots finally got the road monkey off their back last week by winning in Buffalo against a team that's always dangerous in its own backyard.
Now they face another stiff test at home, which seems almost inconceivable at this point considering the fact they've yet to lose at Gillette Stadium.
This week's opponent, Jacksonville, nearly knocked off the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts last week, so the Patriots now face the possibility of clashing heads with a team suffering the typical post-loss hangover, or a team suddenly fired up following a near victory.
The Patriots are in great shape heading into Week 16. They're 9-5 and hold a two-game edge over the rest of the competition in the AFC East. They could wrap up their first division title in two years with a victory Sunday.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, needs this victory a whole lot more. At 7-7 the Jaguars are fighting for their wild-card lives and will need a win on the road against a team that rarely loses at home to keep their dream alive. Call it desperation, but this is the reality the Patriots face; as the postseason approaches, they'll have to deal with everyone's best as teams scramble to crack the playoff picture.
"This is a big game coming up (against) Jacksonville," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "They've had a couple extra days to prepare for us; they had a game last Thursday. We got to definitely put our best game together this week to get this division clinched and we're going to pull out all our stops."
The way Banta-Cain speaks makes this game seem equally important to New England. Sure, they can clinch this weekend, but there's little chance either the Jets or Dolphins will have enough down the stretch to catch them for a shot at the division.
The Patriots technically have the luxury of figuring out their postseason plans these next two weeks while the rest of the league fights for its playoff lives. Nonetheless, they want to close on a positive note, especially with a chance to finish undefeated at home.
"This week is huge for us and it's the biggest game of the year," defensive lineman Mike Wright said, "and we're going to prepare as well as we can. The Jaguars played a Thursday game and they've already got the preparation jump on us, so we're going to have to come in and be ready tomorrow, and be ready Thursday, or Wednesday and Thursday. And (we have to) be ready for them on Sunday."
This game will be far from easy. Given the way Jacksonville put a scare into the Colts, the Patriots know this won't be their typical home walkthrough, which has far too often been the case against inferior teams at Gillette. This will take every last play to win -- perhaps the perfect postseason tune-up after all.
"When you look at the players they have, right down the roster, for the most part, they're bigger and probably faster than most of the other players in the league at their respected positions," head coach Bill Belichick said of Jacksonville. "They do a good job of mixing up their attack, both offensively and defensively. They do a good job of keeping you off balance, but at the same time do the things they do well and make you stop their best players, which they have quite a few of."
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