by Mike Hayes - 01/04/2006
The New England Patriots will begin their quest to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls - and four in five years - when they play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the opening round of playoff action Saturday.
And although there are just three teams in the entire NFL that posted more victories than the Jags, who at 12-4 earned a wild card berth and No. 5 seed, they don't seem to be getting a whole lot of respect as they prepare for their first playoff game in six years. The Jags are the largest underdog of the weekend as oddsmakers have installed the Pats as 8-point chalk.
Kickoff for this wild card match-up is set for 8 p.m. EST.
The fourth-seeded Pats, who won the Eastern Division title with a 10-6 mark, have had their share of ups and downs this season but they enter the game having played very well recently. To wager on the Pats on the money line you have to lay between -350 and -380 to win $100 while a wager on the Jags will get you as much as $295 for $100. The point total on the game has been set at 37.
New England was one of the preseason favorites to win Super Bowl XL with odds as low as 3-1 while the Jaguars could have been bet at odds of better than 30-1.
After qualifying for the playoffs in four of the team's first five years in the NFL, the Jaguars haven't returned since 1999 when they lost the AFC Championship Game to the Titans. A lot can happen in six years, as evidenced by the Pats three Super Bowl victories in that span. Not only are the Pats attempting to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls, they are looking to win their fourth-in five years.
The teams have met twice before in the playoffs, with the Pats prevailing in the 1996 AFC Championship game, the prelude to New England's Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, and the Jags winning a 1998 wild card game.
Prior to Sunday's loss against Miami, in what was essentially a meaningless game, the Patriots won six-of-seven to take control of a weak AFC East Division. The Jaguars enter the game as winners of 8-of-9, including a 40-13 blowout of Tennessee on the season's final Sunday in what was a meaningless game for Jacksonville.
The Jaguars dropped both of their games to the Colts, losing 10-3 at Indy and 26-18 at home while the Pats were buried by Indianapolis 40-21 in Foxboro. Other common foes include the Jets and Steelers, who fell victim to both.
The Jaguars boast a 9-3 record in the AFC and were 6-2 both at home and on the road while the Patriots managed a 7-5 mark in conference play with a 5-3 record both at home and away. The Jaguars were 3-3 against playoff qualifiers, including a win against NFC leading Seattle, while the Patriots managed a 2-3 mark against Super Bowl contenders.
While the Patriots are known for coach Bill Belechick's confounding defensive schemes, it is Quarterback Tom Brady, who has yet to lose a playoff game, who is the key to the Pats success.
Brady, who was successful on 63 percent of his pass attempts, led the AFC in passing yards with an average of better than 257 per game. He will face a stiff challenge against the Jaguars, however, who boast the league's third-ranked pass defense and third overall ranked defense as well.
Corey Dillion, who led the Patriots with 773 yards, is responsible for the bulk of the New England ground game.
The Jaguars, led by backs Fred Taylor and Greg Jones, have a decided edge on the ground, as they racked up 1,959 rushing yards to the Patriots 1,512, but just as the Pats offensive strength plays into the Jags defensive strong suit, do does the Jaguar running game, which finds itself up against one of the top run defenses in the AFC.
Quarterback play could be a key to this game, as the Jaguars Bryon Leftwich is expected to start after missing six games after breaking an ankle in November. The third-year QB out of Marshall, who posted the seventh highest QB rating in the AFC prior to his injury, made good on 58 percent of his pass attempts and tossed 15 touchdown passes to just 5 interceptions. Leftwich's favorite target is Jimmy Smith, who caught 70 balls for better than 1,000 yards.
In leading the AFC with 4,110 passing yards Brady managed 26 touchdown passes and allowed 14 INTs - good enough for the fourth best QB ranking in the AFC at 92 percent. Deion Branch led all Patriot receivers with 78 catches and 998 yards, but Brady likes to spread the ball around, as seven Pats tallied 20 or more receptions.
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