After consecutive primetime games against two of the better teams in the NFL, there isn't quite as much to get up for this week as New England (10-4) heads to Jacksonville to take on the 2-12 Jaguars. While there is still a chance the Patriots could earn a first-round playoff bye, at this point it really looks like New England will be hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend. So while there is always something to play for when Bill Belichick's team takes the field, the first order of business will be to ensure this trip to northern Florida doesn't turn into a late-season trap game. For all their faults, Jacksonville hasn't given up and has actually played some tough games over the last month-plus. That said, this really should be a Christmas gift of a late season tune-up game for Tom Brady and the Patriots. So while you're finishing up your wrapping and waiting for Sunday's traditional 1 o'clock kickoff, sip on this eggnog inspired Jaguars Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Healing the bruises – There is little question that the Patriots were beat up a bit both mentally and physically against the 49ers last Sunday night. While New England's bodies were banged around, an even larger blow may have been to the team's collective ego. Belichick's team isn't used to being dominated like it was early on against San Francisco. So heading to Jacksonville to take on what should be an overmatched Jaguars team, New England is probably looking to take out its frustration on its seemingly inferior opponent. Nothing puts NFL players in a holiday mood like an early lead on the way to what should be an easy victory. The Jaguars haven't scored a touchdown on their opening possession since October of 2011, so there will be a chance for the Patriots to pounce on the cats and build an early lead. Not only would that be a boost for any momentum and confidence that was lost against the 49ers, it might also let Belichick manage the game in terms of any guys (19 Patriots are questionable on the injury report!) who are banged up and could use a few plays off.
2. Shorts goes long! – The biggest challenge the Patriots face in this matchup comes from Jacksonville's young and talented receivers, especially big-play threat Cecil Shorts. Shorts has missed time with a concussion in recent weeks, but was back making plays last week in Miami. The second-year receiver has had a receiving touchdown in four of the last five games and a catch of at least 25 yards in 10 of 13 games played. He has five touchdowns of 20 yards or longer, and 17 catches of 20 yards or longer on the season. He leads the AFC with an 18.9-yard average, thanks in part of a franchise-record four catches of 50 yards or more. There is no question that Shorts can challenge the Patriots down the field. That's a problem the back end has dealt with virtually all season, and certainly popped up a bit last week against San Francisco. Alfonzo Dennard has been banged up the last couple weeks and the timing with the safeties seems to have become a concern recently. Beyond Shorts' 49 catches and seven touchdowns, rookie Justin Blackmon actually leads the Jags with 51 catches to go along with 707 yards (13.9 avg.) and three scores. He has his own 81-yard touchdown. Not too often that you face a opponent with a pair of receivers with 80-yard touchdowns on the season, so the Patriots secondary certainly can't look past the Jacksonville passing attack.
- Ridley, believe it or not?!** – Steven Ridley should be rolling to the finish of an impressive sophomore 1,000-yard season. But fumbles over the last two weeks – against admittedly two pretty impressive defensive fronts – has doubt swirling around New England's lead back. Will he remain a key cog in the offense in the coming weeks and into the postseason? Or could he find himself an offensive afterthought, as was the case last January? It would seem like a good chance this Sunday to get Ridley back on the right track against a Jags defense that ranks 32nd, also known as dead last, in the NFL against the run. Sure the unit has forced 17 fumbles this year, but too much seems to have been invested in Ridley for him to be seen as some ball security lost cause at this point. Jacksonville gives up nearly 150 yards a game and Ridley could use a big day to get his swagger back after a couple tough weeks. Though the Patriots offensive line is still pretty banged up at this point, look for Ridley and the ground game to get their chance to produce and potentially improve to 11-0 in games in which they pick up 100 yards as a unit.
4. Henne given Sunday – Chad Henne has put up decent numbers in his career against the Patriots. Henne has only completed 51-percent of his passes this season, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions for a 75.7 passer rating. Those numbers area actually worse than those of the much-maligned guy he replaced, Blaine Gabbert. While Henne owns just a 1-4 career mark as a starter against the Patriots – all as a member of the Dolphins – he does have three 300-plus-yard games in that action, including 416 yards in last season's opener in Miami. Henne has also thrown a pair of touchdown passes in three of the five games, with six touchdowns and six interceptions overall against the Patriots. He's also been solid on third down in his time in Jacksonville, with an 86.5 rating, this before facing the Patriots third-down defense that ranks 25th in the NFL at this point. Henne is not a great quarterback. He's probably not even really a worthy starter in the NFL. But he can make some plays, and has done so in the past against New England.
5. Babin an impact – Many New England fans hoped that when Jason Babin was released by the Eagles that the veteran pass rusher might land with the Patriots to give the team's pass rush a late season boost. But Jacksonville jumped at the chance to claim the former Pro Bowler and it's paid off as Babin has a strip sack in each of the last two weeks. Following a four-game stretch in which he was sacked just once, Brady has been sacked eight times over the last three weeks. New England's offensive line is dealing with injuries almost across the board, and that could be a factor in the recent extra pressure and hits that Brady has dealt with. The Jags only have 15 sacks as a team and Babin is by far the most dangerous guy the banged up Patriots have to deal with. Similar to the situation with Ridley, this might be a good chance for the Patriots pass protection to get back on the right track and build some confidence after a few tough battles with suspect results against some of the game's elite pass rushers.
6. Brush up the rush– While the pressure on Brady has been on the rise of late, New England's own pass rush has gone into hibernation. Whether due to injury or the proverbial rookie wall, Chandler Jones hasn't had a sack or even a QB hit in the last four games he's played. His playing time was also limited last week against San Francisco as undrafted rookie Justin Francis saw increased reps. New England ranks just 25th in sacks per pass play at this point and could use a boost in the pressure area to improve the overall pass defense as the season closes out. The good news for the Patriots is that the Jags have allowed a sack in every game dating back to Oct. 3, 2010. Rob Ninkovich has been the only somewhat consistent pass rusher this season and he's chasing double-digits, as he leads New England with eight sacks with two games left to play.
Even if healthy, the Jags aren't an overly talented team across the board. Maurice Jones-Drew (414 yards) leads the team in rushing despite not having played in more than half a season. He's out again for a team that has seen 11 of its 22 starters to open the season miss a total of 70 games and counting due to injury. Beyond the big pass plays, there isn't much to be scared of in Jacksonville. They're one of just three teams this season with no touchdowns on special teams or defense, something that could sway a seemingly unbalanced game. Really, if the Patriots keep the pass plays in front of them in the back end I don't see how the Jags could pull off what would be a huge upset. In the end, I see the Patriots coming out to score first and score often. Jacksonville is near the bottom of the NFL in offense and defense -- yards and scoring. Belichick and Brady will have their team ready to play and prove something in this one. There will be no looking past Jacksonville, at least not in the first half. I could easily see the Patriots rolling to the 38-8 blowout. That will leave only a meeting with Miami left on the schedule for a season finale in a home game that could very well turn into essentially a JV contest. For this week, though, it's petal to the metal and a beatdown in Jagtown.