In his Friday press conference, Coach Bill Belichick touted Jaguars quarterback David Garrard for his ability to take hits and turn scramble plays into big gains. Given Belichick's compliments, when the Patriots and Jaguars took the field for a rainy Christmas Eve matchup, nobody could have predicted that the quarterback who finished the game as his team's second-leading rusher with 10 carries for 31 yards would be Tom Brady. In fact, Brady's scrambles were so prolific in this game that he took over as the Pats leading rusher four different times.
"They were doing a pretty good job of covering our receivers, doing a pretty good job of matching our routes pretty well," said Brady after the game. "I think the one thing who isn't accounted for is me and I wish I could run a bit more. But I'm not the most fleet-of-foot guy, so there has to be a lot of space for me to run. I made a few plays running... Trying to get over the 100-yard mark for the season." He smiled.
Brady's 31 yards set a career high, beating his old career high of 26 yards, gained on five rushes against Green Bay back in 2002. By the way, those 31 yards did push his rushing total for the season past 100 yards – 103 yards to be exact.
The Pats lost the opening coin toss, and after the first defensive series, in which safety Rodney Harrison made a solid return to the game from his broken scapula, Brady notched the team's initial first down on a sneak. The drive ended prematurely, however, when wideout Jabar Gaffney's 22-yard sideline reception was challenged and ruled incomplete.
Brady opened up the next offensive series with a 4-yard scramble, and although a later sneak attempt was sniffed out by the Jaguars defense, Stephen Gostkowski knocked a 48-yard field goal attempt through the uprights, with backup quarterback Matt Cassel doing the holding for the first time this season. The field goal put the Patriots up by three in the opening minutes of the second quarter.
Immediately after Gostkowski notched his 11th consecutive field goal this season, Jaguars rookie running back Maurice Jones-Drew showed why his nick-name is "Pinball." He fell after running into Jaguars tight end Kyle Brady, but bouncing off the ground before linebacker Tully Banta-Cain could get a hand on him. Jones-Drew turned the play into a 74-yard touchdown run, marking the first quick strike score the Pats defense has allowed all season, and the longest run on the Pats in over 16 years. Entering this game, the Patriots had allowed just two rushes of 20 yards or longer over the whole season, the lowest total in the NFL. Jones-Drew was the Jaguars main offensive weapon in the game, leading the ground attack with 19 touches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the Jags in receptions with six grabs for 41 yards.
"There was some adversity out there that we fought back from," said Brady. "That run play when [Jones-Drew] is on the ground and everyone thinks he's down, it ends up being a big play for them."
Though Brady did a great job running the football, the Patriots used a mixed attack to keep the Jaguars on their toes. He connected with 10 different receivers, including Kelvin Kight and Bam Childress, neither of who had caught an NFL pass all year.
Tight end Benjamin Watson missed his second game in a row with a sore knee, but rookie tight end David Thomas filled in big – his five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown led the team in every receiving category. All told, Brady connected on 28-of-39 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown.
"We were trying to spread it around the best we could," said Brady "The guys who were open were getting the ball. All the receivers who were out there were working hard to get open.
"We put together a good drive before half and came out in the second half and put together another good drive. I think the execution ended up being a little bit better. Like I said, these guys make you earn every yard. It's always tough to move the ball on these guys. They're very stout on the inside, they're big, they're physical, they rush the passer pretty well. Everything is hard-earned out there."
In the last drive of the first half; the Patriots fourth offensive series, Brady and the offense were mechanical. Passes went to five different receivers and runnersKevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon all took turns pounding the football. Plus, Brady ran twice in that series – contributing a 9-yarder and a 5-yarder. Dillon ended the 14-play, 82-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown dive.
"I think the backs did a good job," said Brady. "That was part of the plan, to try to find the open guys and try to spread them out a little bit and run it when there was a light box, which we did."
Maroney led the ground game with seven carries for 48 yards. Dillon followed up Brady with the third-most rushing yards, 30.
After the half, Thomas began to shine when he had a catch-and-run on a short out route. He turned it into a 36-yard gain, the Pats longest pass play of the day. He followed that up with his first touchdown catch in the NFL on a 22-yard pass from Brady.
"The safety split and Tom put it in a spot where I could get it," said Thomas of the diving touchdown catch. "It was a great throw by him and you just have to catch those."
Thomas' catch extended the Patriots lead to 10 points, bringing the score to 17-7, and the Jags responded by turning on their long passing game.
With 4:07 remaining in the third quarter, linebacker Mike Vrabel intercepted a Garrard pass, but defensive end Richard Seymour was popped for roughing the passer, nullifying the interception. The Pats lost focus for a second with the interception being overturned, and that was just enough time for Garrard to bomb one over the heads of Asante Samuel and Harrison to receiver Ernest Wilford for a 41-yard gain. Jones-Drew followed that up with a 1-yard touchdown run, bringing the Jags back into the game.
Both teams exchanged touchdowns, including a team-leading career-long 27-yard touchdown run by Maroney. On that final touchdown drive for the Pats, Brady broke out of the pocket for a 7-yard run. He wanted the first down, and was hesitant to slide, so he took a hard shot from Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram on the way down. Brady got the first down, but stepped out of the game for a play to regain his composure, with Cassel filling in.
"I was running, which is never a good thing," said Brady of the 7-yard dash. "I was looking for the first-down marker and tried to dive head first, and try to get it. He got me pretty good. I haven't seen the replay or anything like that, but it felt (like he got me) pretty good. I'm sure it will be sore, but I'll be ready to go."
The Patriots went four-and-out in what would have been their last drive if they could have sustained it. The Jaguars had 1:55 to move into field goal range and tie the game after getting the ball at their own 45-yard line. However, the defense was tired of playing. On the Jags first play of the drive, Jarvis Green came free, strip-sacking Garrard, who lost the fumble to Harrison. The turnover was the only one of the game, and secured the Patriots win. Brady came in and kneeled the football three times, knocking three yards off his rushing stats. The final score was 24-21.
"He's a great leader on the field," said tackle Matt Light after the game. "He went out there today and did what he always does. Whenever we needed a big play, he's always out there making them. Tom Brady has always approached the game in the same fashion. At certain points in the season, when things are not rolling right, leaders always step up on the team. He did what he had to do today."
Play of Note: Garrard guns down umpire
On a third-and-4 play with 8:50 remaining in the second quarter, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard fired a pass over the middle intended for wideout Reggie Williams. The pass traveled about 6 yards before hitting umpire Garth DeFelice in the head, knocking him to the ground. DeFelice left the game for observation and was replaced by a reserve umpire.
Pats clinch the AFC East
By virtue of the 24-21 victory over Jacksonville, the Patriots have clinched the 2006 AFC East title and have qualified for the playoffs. As a division champion, New England is guaranteed to host at least one home playoff game. The Patriots have won a franchise-record four straight AFC East titles and have won five of the last six division crowns dating back to 2001.
"We've accomplished something now," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi after the game. "There are a lot of teams that get to the playoffs as a wild-card contender or something like that and you haven't really accomplished anything yet until you get to the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl, but going into the playoffs you're a division champion. I think we can look at it for today and the next couple of days as we have accomplished something now. That's why I have a hat on my head. It's nice to be a division champion. It's our first goal. The first thing you have to do is win the division and then go from there
New England has won seven division titles in the 13 seasons since CEO Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994 and has led the NFL over that span with 13 playoff wins, four conference championships and three Super Bowl titles. The Patriots have now won 10 division crowns in their 46-year history. The Patriots are 8-1 all-time at home in the playoffs and have won eight straight home playoff games.
Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter to break a scoreless tie and give the Patriots a 3-0 lead. The boot was Gostkowski's 11th consecutive successful field goal, a streak that dated back to Nov. 5. The streak was broken when he missed a 49-yarder in the third quarter. Following that miss, he had made 16 of his last 18 field goals (88.9 percent) dating back to Oct. 1 and following his 1-for-2 performance on Christmas Eve was 18-for-23 on the season (78.3 percent).
Lucky No. 15 wears unlucky No. 13
Brandon "Bam" Childress made his first reception of the season on a five-yard catch to pick up a first down in the second quarter. Childress, signed off of the practice squad Saturday, became the 15th different player to catch a pass for New England this season. On the Patriots' first offensive play of the game, Kelvin Kight became the 14th different player to catch a pass for New England this year when he caught his first NFL pass. Kight also made his first career start in the game.