The Boston Globe's Mike Reiss reports that the Patriots won their first hat-and-T-shirt contest of the year. "You know you've accomplished something when you have a hat and T-shirt," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said as he donned a black AFC East Championship hat following the Patriots' 24-21 victory over the Jaguars yesterday at Alltel Stadium. Like Bruschi, coach Bill Belichick wore a championship hat after the game as he talked about what the title means to the team, now 11-4."I'm happy to win the AFC East and am proud of what our players did. They've overcome a lot this year to have the record we have," said Belichick. "You have to give all the credit in the world to the players, they played their hearts out. They certainly deserve it."
Belichick's choice of headgear said it all, explains John Tomase of the Boston Herald. The Patriots coach stepped to the podium yesterday wearing a 2006 AFC East champions cap. Not typically one to advertise such accomplishments, Belichick couldn't help himself after a 24-21 victory that clinched a fourth straight division crown and guaranteed at worst the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. "This year's been a grind, a struggle," said fullback Heath Evans. "It seems like we've been missing a beat every week. It seems like the Patriots team that everyone knows and maybe we're capable of being, it seems like we're just barely missing our stride. So to still win the division, to still be at 11 wins, it just says a lot about the character of this team. I think Bill knows that as well. The joy you see around this locker room is knowing what we've overcome to get here."
Ron Borges of The Boston Globe believes the difference between the teams was the quarterback position. Or, rather, the men playing that position. Brady was far from spectacular against one of the toughest defenses in the AFC, but the things he did do were more important than being spectacular. He was careful when he needed to be careful. And he was bold when he needed to be bold. Garrard, on the other hand, was not.
Shalise Manza Young of The Providence Journal reports on Brady, who stayed on the grass for a few moments after taking a bruising hit on a scramble play. I told him, "Man, don't be scaring me like that!," running back Corey Dillon said. "You can't do that to me. I've seen him get hit a couple of times, and I'm like, 'I know that has to hurt,' and he gets up. That's what you want from your quarterback: to take a licking and get back up." Brady completed better than 70 percent of his passes for 249 yards, but he made quite a difference with his (admittedly slow) feet. He tucked the ball seven times for a career-high 34 yards (he lost three kneeling down at the end of the game), with three of those scrambles coming on third down. All three times he converted, including on the one when he took the shot from Ingram.
Tony Massarotti of the Boston Herald reports on Tom Brady and Rodney Harrison. "what are the Pats if not the model of resiliency and toughness, of perseverance and grit?" Massarotti asks. Every year, the Pats seem to reinvent themselves. Every year, they end up back in the playoffs. So long as the latter remains true, the Pats will be contenders for the Super Bowl. Massarotti explores the toughness of these two players and the roles they play on the team.
Chirstopher Gasper of The Boston Globe reports on the return of safety Rodney Harrison. The hard-hitting safety had three tackles and recovered a David Garrard fumble with 1:46 left that wrapped up both a 24-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England's fourth straight AFC East title yesterday, but the esprit de corps Harrison brought to the defense was just as important as any play he made. "The defense feeds off of him," said Bruschi. "He's a very emotional player. To have him back for this late-season push and get the division championship with him in there was satisfying."
Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe reports that the last time the Patriots played in Jacksonville, Paul McCartney was the halftime entertainment, and the Patriots won, 42-21. A lot of water has passed under the Hart Bridge next to Alltel Stadium since Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6, 2005 alongside the banks of the St. John's River. The Patriots returned to Jacksonville and they won by the same score, this time beating the Jaguars to clinch the AFC East for the fourth consecutive year. "It was pretty ironic," said the unusually buoyant coach Belichick. "The last time we were here would be the same score with [Rodney] Harrison getting the ball at the end of the game."
The Providence Journal's Shalise Manza Young reports that when last the Patriots played here at Alltel Stadium, they left with a 24-21 Super Bowl win over Philadelphia, which was clinched by Rodney Harrison's interception of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Yesterday, Harrison recovered a fumble forced by Jarvis Green to seal New England's 24-21 victory over the Jaguars, a result that gave the Pats their fourth straight AFC East title. Playing with one of their inspirational leaders, Harrison, for the first time in seven games, New England came out on top of a physical game against a team fighting for its postseason life that had played exceptionally well at home this season.
Mike Reiss of The Boston Globe reports on a 7-yard scramble by Tom Brady for a first down. Brady opted to take a big hit and get the first down rather than save himself and slide. "I was looking for the first-down marker and tried to dive head-first," Brady recalled. "He got me pretty good. I'm sure it will be sore, but I'll be ready to go." Coach Belichick was impressed by the run. "You don't want to see any player go down, but luckily he bounced back," he said. "He's a tough kid and that was a big first down that he got. Ultimately that led to our final points that we were able to put up there. I think that reflected his toughness and his competitiveness, how bad he wants to win. That's the type of great player he is."
Jeff Elliott of The Boston Globe reports on rookie tight end David Thomas. Entering the game, ten receivers had caught more passes in the team's first 14 games than Thomas, the third-round draft pick from Texas who had but six catches for 76 yards. But Thomas nearly duplicated those numbers against the host Jaguars, catching five passes for 83 yards while scoring his first NFL touchdown in New England's 24-21 win.
John Tomase of the Boston Herald also reports on Thomas. "He balled out," said fellow rookie Laurence Maroney [stats]. "He had a [heck] of a game. I told him he surprised me today. I didn't know he had hands like that. But he let the world know." Thomas played in an offense known for Vince Young at Texas, but he was no slouch. He caught 10 passes in the Rose Bowl against USC before being selected in the third round of the draft. "The most important thing is I feel like I've been improving every week," Thomas said. "I've been working hard since training camp and I'm glad it paid off today."
As long as David Thomas continues to make strides, Ben Watson can take his time recovering from a leg injury, writes The Woonsocket Call's Michael Parente. The 6-foot-3, 248-pound rookie spent most of the season on special teams before Watson's injury three weeks ago in Miami. "When your hard work shows up in a game, it makes you feel good," Thomas said. "I've got to give credit to my teammates. You can't make a good catch without a good throw and you can't get open without talent around you."
Michael Felger of the Boston Herald explains that the Patriots scheming makes them a feared playoff team. They are still, despite substantial player turnover the last two years, tough and clutch. All you had to do was watch Tom Brady and Rodney Harrison in the fourth quarter to understand that. And they are still, above all else, very well coached.
Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant reports that the wounded who could return did. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a cornerstone of the run defense, and tight end Benjamin Watson, the Patriots' leading receiver until his Dec. 10 knee injury in Miami, did not even make the trip. But Rodney Harrison, who hadn't played since breaking his right shoulder blade Nov. 5, did play. So did rookie running back Laurence Maroney, out since injuring his ribs Dec. 3.
The Worcester Telegram & Gazette's Rich Garven reports that the Patriots received a couple of early Christmas presents yesterday. Harrison and Maroney returned after extended absences to take part in the Patriots' 24-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Harrison had missed the last six games since breaking his right shoulder blade against Indianapolis on Nov. 5. He returned to practice Dec. 15 and participated in the last four workouts.
Rich Garven of The Worcester Telegram & Gazette explains that punting turnover has hurt the Patriots this season. Yesterday, Todd Sauerbrun's career as a Patriot got off to a less-than-booming start. Sauerbrun, signed Friday to handle the punting chores, averaged just 35 yards on five kicks in the Patriots 24-21 victory yesterday over Jacksonville. Sauerbrun, at least, saved his best kick of the day for last. He lofted a 42-yarder out of his own end zone with two minutes to play.
Merry Christmas from everyone at Patriots.com and Patriots Football Weekly!