The Jacksonville Jaguars travel to Foxborough to battle the Patriots in a first round playoff matchup. Jacksonville is 12-4 on the season but they find themselves in a position the Patriots are very familiar with: an underrated team searching for respect. If the Jaguars want respect, there's no better way to earn it than beating the two time defending Super Bowl champions on their own field. They will get their chance this Saturday night.
At 12-4, the Jaguars are only playing in the wild card round of the playoffs because they are in the same division as the Indianapolis Colts. Despite playing two tough games against the Colts and beating the Seahawks, Bengals and Steelers this season, not too many people are giving Jacksonville much of a chance against the Patriots this weekend.
"If we beat the Patriots, maybe people will finally shut up about us," defensive tackle John Henderson said after the Jaguars beat the Tennessee Titans in their season finale.
The Jaguars have a right to feel disrespected. The Patriots had a chance to play for the third seed in the playoffs but Bill Belichick chose to rest his starters instead. Many believe the Patriots wanted to play Jacksonville rather than the Pittsburgh Steelers. The way the Patriots approached their final game wasn't lost on some of the Jaguar players.
"We don't get the credit we deserve," running back Fred Taylor said. "Everybody wanted us. That makes us feel special, right? When you're wanted, you should feel special."
Linebacker Akin Ayodele said the Jaguars don't mind playing the underdog role.
"We don't mind being the underdogs," he said. "It actually fits this team well. We'll just take it and ride with it. Do we want respect? Yeah we want respect but the only way we'll get it is by earning it. We have no problem with that."
One person who isn't overlooking the Jaguars is Belichick. The Patriots coach said it's hard not to be impressed with a football team that's won 12 games.
"They're 12-4," Belichick said. "They're aren't many teams better than that. If the playoffs weren't set up the way they are, they would probably be playing at home. This team is built to win every week. They've won a lot of games. They've won them when it's hot, cold, home, away, it doesn't matter. They're a good football team that does a lot of things well."
One thing the Jaguars do really well is play defense. With monster defensive tackles Henderson and Marcus Stroud clogging up the middle, Jacksonville finished the season sixth in the NFL in total defense and they are a tough defense to run the football on. Led by Stroud and Henderson, the Jags held Shaun Alexander – the NFL's leading rusher – to only 73 yards rushing earlier this year.
"They're big, tough, they can stop the run," Belichick said. "They're very physical. Probably as physical as any defensive line in the league. They're tough."
The Jaguars not only stop the run, they rush the ball well themselves. They ranked 11th in rushing offense this season, averaging 122.5 yards per game. Taylor missed four games with an ankle injury and finished with his lowest rushing total in five years but Greg Jones and LaBrandon Toefield filled in admirably when Taylor was out. All three backs have gone over 100 yards rushing in a game this season.
The biggest question mark facing Jacksonville entering this game is at the quarterback position. Byron Leftwich broke his ankle on Nov. 27 but he returned to practice last week and is going to start against the Patriots.
"It's not a difficult decision from my standpoint," head coach Jack Del Rio said. "Byron is our starter and when he's healthy, he's going to be out there."
Backup David Garrard was very effective in Leftwich's absence, going 4-1 as a starter. If Leftwich is rusty, Jacksonville will be in good hands should they have to go to the more athletic Garrard in relief.
"We're preparing for both guys," Belichick said. "We prepare for everybody on the active roster. That's how we approach every game"
This will be the Jaguars biggest game since Del Rio took over as coach in Jacksonville. They haven't been to a playoff game since the 1999 season but this is a young, confident group that isn't afraid of playing the defending champions on their home field.
"If you check our record, we love the big stage," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "We're going to show up. They know that. They know we're going to show up on their home turf. That's what we live for. This team, we get up when the game is big."
Jacksonville comes into this game as more than a touchdown underdog but according to Tom Brady, the Patriots are the team that doesn't get the respect they deserve.
"I think if there's one team that feels like they're disrespected, it's us," Brady said. "I think we've probably been disrespected more than any other team in the league this year. I think we've been given up by a lot of media people, a lot of fans, our own fans, and other people around the league.
"I don't disrespect Jacksonville. How do you disrespect a team that's 12-4? If we were 12-4, it would be different. I think people gave up on us long ago, so we'll see what that means."
When asked about Brady's comments, Belichick responded, "I think that opinion has been well represented this year. Sure, I agree with what Tom said."
Both teams may be fighting for respect on Saturday but more importantly they will be battling to move on in the playoffs. Whichever team emerges victorious will be rewarded with a trip to either Denver or Indianapolis where both Jacksonville and New England are sure to be underdogs once again. Sometimes teams are able to ride the disrespect card all the way to the Super Bowl. Just ask the 2001 Patriots.
The Patriots are converted 71.7 percent on third-and-short (three yards or less) this season. That ties them with the Seattle Seahawks for the NFL lead…The Patriots had 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2005, ranking second in the league behind the Arizona Cardinals…The Patriots gave up only one rushing play of more than 20 yards this season…Belichick said at his Wednesday press conference the more he sees of the Jaguars, the more impressed he is with them. "The more film I watch on Jacksonville and the closer I look at them, the more impressed I am," he said. "They play a very physical style of ball."