Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe writes that of the 53 players on the Patriots' roster, 13 have never appeared in an NFL playoff game. In addition to safety Artrell Hawkins, the total includes seven rookies -- quarterback Matt Cassel, receiver Bam Childress, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, left tackle Nick Kaczur, left guard Logan Mankins, safety James Sanders, and nose tackle Mike Wright -- as well as second-year players Marquise Hill (defensive line), Billy Yates (offensive line), and Benjamin Watson (tight end), and fifth-year veterans Michael Stone (safety) and Ross Tucker (offensive line). If coach Bill Belichick were holding a meeting with the group, he said his message would be concise and direct. ''We're moving up a level in intensity. There are some games during the season that, let's face it, if you lose them, your season can continue. We're not at that point now. So every play, every situation, every decision, everything in every game, it truly is a one-game season now. Everything is more important. Everything is critical. There's not one aspect of any part of the preparation for the game that isn't of utmost importance because it could determine not only the outcome of the game, but the outcome of the season."
Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes that Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer, who has 7 1/2 sacks in 14 starts, currently sports a soft cast on his left hand, which he injured during warmups before a Christmas Eve game against the Houston Texans. Spicer played about 15 plays with the broken hand, then sat out Sunday against Tennessee. He is currently listed as questionable on the Jaguars injury report, but Spicer insists he will play. "It's something that's there and I've got to play with it to protect myself," said Spicer, regarding the cast. ''I'm going to play with it. You know what I'm saying? I'll soften it up. It's not going to be as hard a cast because I can't just whirl it around trying to knock people's heads off. You've got to protect yourself and I've got to protect myself and also go out there and play as hard as I can to win."
Jerome Solomon of the Boston Globe writes that when New England and Jacksonville square off Saturday night, Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich, who returned to practice last week, will get the first crack at an improved Patriots defense. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Jaguars don't change much even when the signal-caller changes. ''I think it's pretty much the same offense, but we certainly have to have an awareness of which quarterback is in there," Belichick said. ''Again, we still have to prepare for both of them. It could be two plays into the game and the other guy could be in there." Neither Leftwich nor Garrard has played in the playoffs, but each has performed well under regular-season pressure. Leftwich was fifth in the AFC in third-down passing, while Garrard finished second in the NFL behind Peyton Manning in fourth-quarter passing.
Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe writes that it's rare to see two rookies (Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur) starting on the offensive line, a spot where at least one year of seasoning is recommended because of the physicality of the game and complex blocking schemes. So rare, in fact, that this marks the first time in Bill Belichick's head coaching career that it's happened, and only the second time overall. The Kaczur-Mankins pairing faces its next challenge in Saturday night's playoff game against the Jaguars. The Jacksonville defensive line -- ends Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward; tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson -- is considered one of the strongest units in the league. The Jaguars' 47 sacks rank third in the NFL (first based on opponents' pass attempts). Chalk it up as the latest in a long line of welcome-to-the-NFL tests.
John Tomase of the Boston Herald writes that the Patriots undersized secondary will face a huge challenge as the Jaguars core of wide receivers are the largest New England has faced all season. Ernest Wilford is 6-4, 218, Jimmy Smith is 6-1,202, Matt Jones is 6-6, 229, Reggie Williams is 6-4, 214 and added to the mix is tight end Kyle Brady who is 6-6,278. The Patriots haven't faced too many big receivers this season, but the few they've seen have played well at their expense. Oakland's Randy Moss (6-4), Atlanta's Brian Finneran (6-5) and Buffalo's Eric Moulds (6-2) each torched the Pats for more than 100 yards via the air.
Michael Felger of the Boston Herald writes that Bill Belichick used his guts and defied conventional wisdom. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio is making the safe call. History can judge both men. We all know what happened to Belichick when he went with Tom Brady in November 2001 after established starter Drew Bledsoe recovered from injury. Del Rio's judgment awaits. Byron Leftwich is a former first-round pick and the Jags' franchise quarterback, and if he suffers no setbacks in his recovery from a broken ankle this week, he will be Del Rio's starter in Saturday's wild card game at Gillette Stadium. David Garrard, who went 5-1 while throwing just one interception in relief, will be the backup. What would Belichick do if faced with this choice? It's impossible to know for sure, but given the history, my money would be on Garrard.
John Tomase of the Boston Herald writes that Adam Vinatieri has won two Super Bowls with last-minute field goals, but he'll always hold a place in his heart for the 40-yarder he kicked on Sept. 22, 1996. The opponent was the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Patriots seemingly had the game won, but the Jags forced overtime with a flurry of Hail Marys. Vinatieri had already made four field goals when he knocked the 40-yarder down the middle for a 28-25 victory and his first game-winning kick. "That was my rookie year and it was pretty meaningful to me," Vinatieri said yesterday with a playoff matchup against Jacksonville looming. "That was a long time (ago), 10 years ago, but I'll never forget it. I was relieved when it was all said and done. It has no real reference to this (game), but it was a good feeling at the time."
Tom Curran of the Providence Journal writes that New England has faced its share of difficult front fours. The forecast for the Patriots was supposed to be bleak when they took on the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl nearly two years ago. It didn't work out that way. So prophesies of doom don't hold much water. With all that said, Jacksonville has some talent up front. It's actually the strongest part of their entire team, a group that seems to infuse the rest of the club with toughness. "(Stroud and Henderson) usually just take the guy who is blocking them, throw them out of the way and make the tackle," Belichick said. "If it is a pass, then they just take the guy that is blocking them, walk them into the backfield and either bat the ball down or tackle or kill the quarterback. And they do a lot of that."
Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant writes that when the injury-riddled, defenseless Patriots were .500 at midseason, did some fans and media members give up on the notion of their winning a record third consecutive Super Bowl? Sure. But given the pathetic state of the 2005 AFC East, few doubted that the Patriots would win their fourth division title in five years. The Patriots still feel that they have been disrespected according to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "I think we've been probably disrespected more than any team in the league this year," the Patriots quarterback said. "I think we've been given up on by a lot of media people, a lot of fans. Our own fans, other people around the league. And if there's one team that feels like they're disrespected, it's us. I don't disrespect Jacksonville. How can you disrespect a team that's 12-4? If we were 12-4, it would be different. I think people gave up on us a long time ago." Bill Belichick said during his press conference yesterday that he stands by Brady's remarks.
Michael Felger of the Boston Herald offers his weekly Patriots report card.
Tom Curran of the Providence Journal offers his daily sports blog with Patriots notes and commentary.