A very rare perfect regular season has brought the New England Patriots individual awards, NFL records and a place in history. Despite those remarkable accomplishments, raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy is the only way their season will be deemed a success.
The Patriots hope to take the first step toward a fourth championship in seven seasons Saturday night when they meet the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
If becoming the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season wasn't impressive enough, the Patriots also set a handful of records along the way. Their 589 points scored and 79 touchdowns are NFL records, as was league MVP Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss' 23 TD receptions.
New England is trying join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to win the Super Bowl after an undefeated regular season. Compared to that Miami team throughout their run to 16-0, the Patriots need three more wins to leave no argument as to which is the greatest team in NFL history.
The players spent most of this season deflecting talk about a perfect season, instead focusing solely on the next game. That attitude clearly is a product of playing for tight-lipped coach Bill Belichick, but it also comes from veteran leaders Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Brady, all of whom played on New England's three previous championship teams.
"To see what we've accomplished this far is great. But, as coach put it, there's another mountain to climb," Brady said. "We're in the same position as Jacksonville, which is in the same position as Indy, which is in the same position as San Diego."
Besides all the accolades going 16-0 brought, all it did for the Patriots was get them a bye in the first round and the promise of two potential home playoff games.
If any team in league history had reason to be overconfident heading into the postseason, it would be the Patriots. Belichick, however, is not one to ever let his players get comfortable, making the team practice in full pads throughout their off week.
"When you get to this point in the season, everyone deserves to be here. This just happens to be probably one of the better ones that's out there," fullback Heath Evans said. "Bill preached for the last week that it was going to be a team that's good, that deserved to be here, and they've got the same record that we do in this tournament."
Jacksonville (12-5) presents a different kind of challenge for the Patriots. The Jaguars are one of the league's most physical teams and have the personnel -- particularly running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew -- to pound New England's aging defense for four quarters.
"It will be history," Jaguars linebacker Justin Durant said. "You will either be on the losing side or the winning side. You will be known as the team that was part of their undefeated season or the team that stopped it. That is a big challenge."
Taylor, a 10-year veteran, and Jones-Drew, in his second season, combined to rush for 1,970 yards, the second-best tandem behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.
"They both have different qualities," Seymour said. "Jones-Drew is a little short, bowling-ball type guy that runs hard, and Fred Taylor, he's shifty in the hole and brings a lot of power. He has the speed to give that home run hit."
While Taylor is the one headed to the Pro Bowl, it was Jones-Drew that had the better performance in last Saturday's thrilling 31-29 wild-card victory at Pittsburgh.
Jones-Drew scored on a 43-yard swing pass and a 10-yard run, and also had a 96-yard kickoff return to set up Taylor's 1-yard TD run on Jacksonville's opening possession.
Taylor rushed for at least 104 yards in each of his last five regular-season games and finished with 1,202. He averaged a career-best 5.4 yards per carry -- better than fellow Pro Bowl selections LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai and Willie Parker.
"I think (Taylor's) playing the best type of football he has in his career," Bruschi said.
The Patriots run defense looked vulnerable late in the season, allowing an average of 124.8 rushing yards and 4.9 per carry in five December games.
Jones-Drew ran for 113 yards against New England in a 24-21 loss on Dec. 24, 2006 in the most recent meeting. Taylor missed that game with a hamstring injury.
Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio decided to go with David Garrard as his starting quarterback this season over veteran Byron Leftwich, and it's turned out to be the right choice. Keeping Taylor and Jones-Drew in check would put more pressure on Garrard, who only completed nine passes and threw two interceptions in the win over the Steelers.
Garrard, though, came up with the game's biggest play with 1:56 left and the Jaguars trailing 29-28, running for 32 yards on fourth-and-2 to set up Josh Scobee's 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds remaining.
Regardless of Jacksonville's performance on offense, finding a way to keep New England's explosive offense off the field should be its most likely path to an upset.
Not only did the Patriots go 6-0 against playoff teams, they averaged 39 points a game against them.
Brady is in the midst of arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in league history. Not only did he set the record for touchdown passes, he also set a career low for interceptions (eight) and led the NFL in passing yards (4,806) and passer rating (117.2).
Brady has already won the MVP -- the first by a Patriot -- and was named Offensive Player of the Year on Tuesday.
"Individual awards haven't been as important to me as the team goals, and I've said that for a long time," Brady said. "While I'm very flattered to be honored in that way, I understand that my greatest satisfaction comes from winning games and being the leader of this football team. I take that job very seriously and I hope that translates into a win this week."
Brady was among the game's best quarterbacks before the Patriots' busy offseason brought him Moss along with fellow receivers Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth.
Moss had an instant chemistry with Brady, catching 98 passes for 1,493 yards -- second in the NFL behind Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne. If opposing defenses double team the 6-foot-4 Moss, then Brady looks for Welker, who tied for the league lead with 112 receptions for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns.
New England completely abandoned its running game at times this season, but Laurence Maroney's late-season resurgence proved he is still capable of contributing. Maroney rushed for more than 100 yards in two of his last three games, but will be facing a Jacksonville defense that limited Pittsburgh to 43 yards on 26 carries.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.