JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There were indications that this could be a "let-down" game for the Patriots.
After two emotional, hard-fought, prime time home affairs against top teams in each conference – a win over Houston, followed by a loss to San Francisco – New England hit the road to take on a Jacksonville squad that had won just two games all season. With a playoff berth already secure and a chance for a first-round bye quickly slipping away, human nature suggested this could be a tough spot for the Patriots.
Initially, it looked like that.
The Jaguars pounced on the Patriots. Jacksonville QB Chad Henne marched his team down the field for an opening-drive touchdown. Meanwhile, New England's Tom Brady was flat, throwing two first-quarter interceptions. Just like that, the Jags were up 10-0 and an upset looked like it was brewing.
Then, New England settled down and fought back to knot the score at 13 by halftime. The Patriots pulled ahead by 10 points early in the fourth quarter and seemed comfortably on their way to a win.
Yet, the Jaguars refused to be captured that easily. Down just seven, Jacksonville found itself on the threshold of the Patriots' end zone twice in the final four minutes. Both times, Patrick Chung rescued his Patriots teammates with interceptions of Henne – one at the 1-yard line, the other in the end zone as time expired.
"They just started faster than us," Chung remarked later. "We just had to get our composure back and just play ball."
"We preach playing for 60 minutes. Whatever we've got to do… we're just trying to go out and make one more play than they did," added cornerback Marquice Cole, who also stole a third-quarter pass from Henne.
Whether they knew it or not at the time, those big plays in the second half were crucial for New England's playoff positioning. As the dramatic events were unfolding at EverBank Stadium on the banks of the St. John's River, the top-seeded Houston Texans were being overpowered at home by a Minnesota Vikings team fighting for its own post-season survival. If Houston were to lose its last two games and New England win its final pair, the Patriots could earn a bye in the first round.
"Oh, they [lost]? I didn't know that. That's a bonus!" exclaimed Chung when told of the Texans' downfall. "We can't control things around the league, we just have to control what we did today."
"You see the scores come up every once in a while [in the stadium], but sometimes you're into the game and you don't have time to," confessed co-captain Devin McCourty, who was forced to return to cornerback Sunday in place of the hobbled Aqib Talib.
"I saw [the Vikings] were winning, but didn't know the final. We just have to play better, bye or no bye. If we're not playing our best football [in the playoffs], it doesn't matter."
"It was nice to be in there, but we've got a lot of work to do, top-to-bottom," added tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who contributed a pair of clutch catches to the winning cause. "We all know that. If we give that performance in two weeks, we won't be playing very long."
As the team boarded its charter flight back to New England, the clouded playoff picture had begun to clear. Cincinnati's last-second win over division rival Pittsburgh helped seal the Steelers' fate, as well as the Bengals'. Cincy is now playoff-bound along with Indianapolis as Wild Card entries. Baltimore was poised to secure the AFC North with a home win over the New York Giants.
Though it appears the Patriots will wind up with the 3-seed in the AFC playoffs, they could get that coveted bye with a win next week over Miami at home and another Houston loss (to the Colts in Indy). However, if they perform like they did for most of the day against Jacksonville and the Ravens win again, New England could slip to the 4-seed.
"We're not worried about that," maintained wide receiver Wes Welker. "We're just focused on us and what we need to do to get better as a team."
The way they played today, that's probably the right approach to take.