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Patriots keys to victory against the Jaguars

The playoffs are finally here and the Patriots are going for their third straight Super Bowl title. Jacksonville is the first test for the Patriots and at 12-4, they will be a tough out.

1. Use the short passing gameThe Jaguars defense is built similar to the Steelers. They are tough to run against and they don't give up many big plays through the air but they do have problems defending the underneath routes, something the Patriots excel in. Against the Steelers, Tom Brady killed them with crossing patterns and dump offs to Kevin Faulk and the Patriots should be able to do the same kinds of things against Jacksonville. Looking at this game realistically, the Patriots probably won't have much success on the ground. Jacksonville is tough up the middle with tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson and that's where Corey Dillon does most of his damage. This is one of those games where rushing attempts will be more important than actual rushing yards. If Dillon can get a few yards here and there to keep the Jaguars defense honest, Brady will have a lot of opportunities to pick them apart with the short passing game. Look for Faulk, David Givens and possibly the tight ends to come up big in this game.

2. Prevent the big play through the airA lot of people are talking about the Jaguars running game with Fred Taylor and Greg Jones but defending the run is the Patriots strength. If Jacksonville tries to line up and play power football with the Patriots, they're not going to have much success. The big advantage the Jaguars have is the size of their receivers going up against the small New England secondary. Jimmy Smith, Ernest Wilford and Matt Jones are all big targets that can get down the field and make plays. Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel have struggled at times this season against taller receivers and this could be a problem for the New England defense, especially in the red zone. The one guy to look out for is Wilford. He's starting to emerge as a big-play threat for the Jaguars and he'll be matched up against the rookie Hobbs a majority of the time. Quarterback Byron Leftwich could be rusty after a month off but he does have the arm to get the ball down the field to his big receivers. It's doubtful Jacksonville will be able to put together a lot of long drives against the Pats defense so if the Patriots can prevent the quick strike, they should move on to the next round of the playoffs.

3. Put the heat on Leftwich
There's no secret that the Patriots success in the playoffs falls on the shoulders of the defensive front seven. If the defensive front plays well and pressures the quarterback, the Patriots are tough to beat. If Leftwich has time to stand in the pocket, he has the ability to pick apart the New England secondary. Leftwich isn't getting mush respect from Patriots fans but make no mistake about it, he is a very capable quarterback. You can't just look at stats when it comes to Leftwich. He's kind of like Steve McNair and Brady were early in their career. He doesn't put up eye-popping numbers but he's a leader who always seems to make the big throws when he needs to. Leftwich is one of the most immobile quarterbacks in the NFL when he's healthy but now that he's playing on a sore ankle, he'll be even more of a statue in the pocket. If Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin can take advantage of rookie tackle Khalif Barnes and get to Leftwich on a consistent basis, Jacksonville has no chance on offense. On the other hand, if the Jaguars offensive line gives Leftwich time to find his receivers, this game could be a lot closer than most people think.

4. Make a play on special teamsThe Patriots haven't returned a kick for a touchdown since the Cleveland game of last year and this would be a good time to break that streak. While the Patriots special teams has been strong this year overall, the one area they've struggled in is the return game. Bethel Johnson is averaging 22.4 yards on kickoff returns and Tim Dwight is averaging 8.5 yards on punt returns. Neither has made a huge play this year to turn the momentum of a game and that's the kind of thing the Patriots will need if this is a close, low-scoring contest. The Jaguars rank 26th the NFL in kickoff coverage but third in the AFC in opponents average starting drive. The reason for the discrepancy is Josh Scobee leads the NFL with 20 touchbacks but in a frigid night game at Gillette Stadium, it's going to be awfully hard for Scobee to continuously kick the ball into the end zone. This will allow the Patriots to get some returns and take advantage of the Jaguars weak kick coverage. If Johnson can break one early, it could demoralize a young team like Jacksonville.

5. Play with swagger
The Patriots are the two-time defending Super Bowl champions and even though Jacksonville is a solid football team, they don't have the playoff experience New England has. The Patriots looked lost earlier in the year but they started to build confidence over the last month of the season. The Jaguars are no pushovers – just ask the Colts – but if the Patriots can come out and dominate the game from start to finish, neither Denver nor Indianapolis is going to be looking forward to next weekend. This has been a tough season in New England but the team has managed to pull together and make another run at the Super Bowl. If they can start rolling in this game and ride that momentum into next week, watch out.

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