The Patriots signed punter Todd Sauerbrun on Friday. They face a tough late-season road test against Jacksonville this week with an opportunity to clinch the AFC East division title with a victory. The Jaguars, also contending for a spot in the AFC playoffs, boast the league's second-best ground attack and have played well at home this season, only losing one game in Alltel Stadium while allowing a league-low 9.1 points per game. Here are five things the Patriots need to do to move past the Jaguars and into the playoffs:
Supply the needed field position on special teams
The Patriots brought punter Todd Sauerbrun in to work him out on Friday and signed him the same day, raising the total number of punters on the Patriots to five. That list includes Sauerbrun, Josh Miller (IR), Ken Walter (IR), Danny Baugher (practice squad) and Tom Malone (practice squad). Sauerbrun has holding experience, but with only one day to acclimate to taking snaps from Lonie Paxton and gettting the football down for Stephen Gostkowski, the Pats may ask one of the quarterbacks or practice squad punters to hold in the upcoming game. No matter who does the holding, the Patriots are going to need to put forth a solid special teams effort in this game if they want to overcome the Jaguars.
"Field position is huge in this league," special teams captain Larry Izzo said this week. "You win and lose games sometimes in the kicking game." Jags punter Chris Hanson hasn't been getting it done for the Jaguars this season, and their punt coverage is allowing 12 yards per return, which could mean good field position for the Patriots.
Unfortunately, Pats punt returner Kevin Faulk could be out this game after hurting his right knee against the Texans last week. If Faulk can't go, look for someone to step in and get it done (Ellis Hobbs has had a huge kick return in each of the last two games). Field position played a big role in last week's dominant play as well as the loss to Miami the week before. The Patriots are going to need to give the offense a chance to score without having to cover the whole field if they want to put up points against this defense.
Be balanced on offense
The Jaguars defense is currently ranked second in the league in yards allowed. They rank third in stopping the run, and seventh in pass defense. A defense as solid as Jacksonville's must have been scheming all week to figure out how to make the Patriots one-dimensional in hopes of shutting down Tom Brady and Co. completely. The Pats will likely treat this game like Week 8's trip to Minnesota, spreading the offense and mixing things up by using play-action passes to keep the Jags defenders on their toes in an effort to be balanced.
A big part of that balance could be finding a No. 2 receiver. Tight end Benjamin Watson was in the locker room Friday, moving around without a brace on his knee and packing his bag for the trip, but he wasn't seen at practice all week (during the portion available to the media). He's listed as "Questionable" on this week's injury report, and didn't play last week. If he's still injured in this game, where the passing attack could be crucial, one of the other receivers is going to have to step in and help wideout Reche Caldwell supply the team with receiving yards.
Corral the Jaguars stable of running backs
The Jaguars downgraded starting running back Fred Taylor to "Out" on Friday's injury report, which means he won't play when the Patriots come to town. But they're not out of the woods yet. Rookie running back Maurice Jones-Drew stepped in for Taylor in Week 14 against the Colts, and amassed 303 all-purpose yards, running so much that he needed intravenous fluids to re-hydrate. He's recorded 1143 all-purpose yards this season, and is as much of a threat in the passing game as he is in the rushing game. Jones-Drew is listed as 5-feet-7-inches tall, but coach Bill Belichick talked this week about how his smaller size can be an asset, allowing him to hide behind big blockers and making it easer for him to get underneath the pads of would-be tacklers to gain extra yardage. A number of defensive players also stressed how good he's looked on film.
Even with Taylor down, the Jaguars still have Jones-Drew, Alvin Pearman, Derrick Winbush, LaBrandon Toefield and Montell Owens to supply depth, so it's no wonder Belichick kept referring to the group as a "stable of running backs" this week. Toefield figures to get the most carries after Jones-Drew this weekend, though he's been inactive a lot this season. "He's a good player,'' Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said this week according to The Jacksonville Times-Union. "He's just in a numbers situation where we can't get him on the field as often as we'd like. He's productive when we play him. He played well when he got in there."
Keep Garrard in the pocket
Just like with David Carr last week, the Patriots are facing another dangerous scrambler in David Garrard. He's coming off the worst game in his pro career and will be looking to turn things around with the playoffs on the line. The Jaguars have had some big scrambling plays this season, and Garrard has taken off 44 times for 224 yards this season, including a season-long run of 20 yards. Coach Belichick spoke Friday about how many broken plays the Jaguars have been able to turn into gains because of their big receivers.
"They make a lot of broken plays like that," he said. "A lot of them. Sometimes it's [the receivers] breaking to open areas. A lot of times, though, it's more the quarterback just throwing the ball to those guys in one-on-one situations and letting them go up and make the play." The Pats will need to collapse the pocket while containing him so he doesn't have a chance to sling it up for wideout Reggie Williams.
Don't forget to pack the swagger
The Patriots are completely aware of the weight this game carries – a win will secure them a playoff berth. But the Jaguars can keep their playoff hopes alive by winning as well. The Jaguars are favored in this game because of their 6-1 record at home.
"This is a big game, no matter how you slice it," said Pats linebacker Tully Banta-Cain this week. "It's kind of like a playoff game. We know a lot's on the line. There's a lot to gain and a lot to lose, so we're taking this game seriously."
The Jags defensive ends reportedly both said this week that they want fans to be as loud as possible while Brady is on the field. He's played in some pretty big games, but the fact that their defense is entreating locals to keep the intensity up seems like a good indicator of the level of play we can expect.
"They're as good as anybody we've played on defense. They can do it all. They can rush. They can cover. They can stop the run. They don't have to blitz, but they do blitz and it's a problem when they do. It's a problem when they don't. They're big. They're physical. They tackle well. They're fast. They're good on third down. They're good on first down. They're good in the red area. They're good against the run. They lead the league in... they're up there in everything," said Belichick on Thursday.
Expect the Patriots to be putting on their game faces this week, so they don't have to bring them to Tennessee next week when they face the Titans. Welcome to playoff-type football. There's nothing sweeter…
And Happy Holidays to you and yours from everyone here at Patriots.com and Patriots Football Weekly.
The Patriots practiced outside today wearing sweats, helmets and shells. The only players not seen on the field during the portion of practice available to the media were defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson. Neither of them has been seen at practice all week. … The locker room was pretty empty today, with the players who were there packing their bags for the trip to Florida. It seems likely the others were out getting their last-minute shopping done like everyone else. … There were no changes to the Patriots injury report, though the Jaguars downgraded RB Fred Taylor to "Out."