Pats end Jacksonville's run
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 11:32 p.m.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady was almost perfect. The Patriots still are.
Their poised and prolific quarterback knocked another mark out of the books in their record-breaking season, completing all but two of his 28 passes to lead New England to its second straight AFC championship game with a 31-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night.
The Patriots pulled away in the second half to improve to 17-0, matching the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team to go unbeaten from the first game of the season through the Super Bowl.
Two more wins and the Patriots will join them — much to the chagrin of some of those Dolphins who cling to their no longer unique status.
Just one more win next Sunday at Gillette Stadium will put the Patriots back in the Super Bowl for the first time in three years after three championships in the previous four years. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s game between San Diego and Indianapolis, which beat New England in last year’s AFC title game.
‘‘We’re definitely going to enjoy it,’’ defensive end Richard Seymour said. ‘‘Winning is always the most important thing at this time of the year.’’
Brady completed 92.6 percent of his passes, breaking Phil Simms record of 88 percent (22-of-25) set in the Super Bowl after the 1986 season in which he led the New York Giants to a 39-20 win over the Denver Broncos.
And Brady did it mostly without Randy Moss, who had only one catch.
He hit all the other receivers — throwing for three touchdowns and 262 yards.
‘‘Tom is terrific,’’ Seymour said. ‘‘He’s a great leader and he does all the little things.’’
While Jacksonville’s defense struggled to stop Brady and crew, New England’s defense had no such problems against the Jaguars’ one-two rushing punch of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. The league’s second-most productive duo during the regular season combined for just 66 yards.
It was the Patriots who dominated on the ground as Laurence Maroney rushed for 122 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown.
Add Brady’s on-target passing to these regular-season records — 50 touchdown passes by Brady, 23 scoring catches by Moss and 589 points by the team — and Jacksonville (12-6) became just another team that couldn’t stop the Patriots.
And they’re not done yet.
Brady completed his first 16 passes before the next one went off the hands of Benjamin Watson, who caught two others for touchdowns.
The next nine passes found their targets before another one — to Wes Welker with 6:46 left in the game — finally fell incomplete.
‘‘I thought he managed the team well,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. ‘‘Of course, he threw the ball well.’’
One throw the Patriots didn’t make may have helped the Jaguars take a 7-0 lead. David Garrard completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Matt Jones on their first possession. He threw as he was going down while in the grasp of Mike Vrabel, and his knee might have touched the turf before he released the pass.
Belichick pulled the red challenge flag from his sock but held on to it, perhaps wary of wasting a time out so early.
Brady tied it on the Patriots’ first possession with a 3-yard scoring pass to Watson.
New England capitalized on Garrard’s fumble on Jacksonville’s second possession when he was hit by Ty Warren and Vrabel recovered at the Jaguars 29. On the first play of the second quarter, Maroney ran in from the 1.
But Garrard, in just his second playoff game, kept matching the success of Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Garrard directed a 95-yard drive after Jones-Drew misplayed the kickoff and recovered at his own 5. With an excellent blend of passing and running, the Jaguars covered those 95 yards in 11 plays — never even reaching a third down — and tied it on Garrard’s 6-yard pass to Ernest Wilford.
The Patriots then moved to the Jaguars 19, but a chop block against guard Stephen Neal set them back 15 yards and Stephen Gostkowski ended up missing a 35-yard field goal, leaving the score tied at 14 at halftime.
They came out of the locker room with trickery on their minds.
On a first-and-goal at the Jacksonville 6, Brady put on a good acting performance as he jumped and raised his empty right arm, making it appear as if Kevin Faulk had taken a direct snap. The quarterback, meanwhile, hid the ball in his left hand.
Then he switched to his right hand and found Welker at the back of the end zone to give the Patriots the lead for good, 21-14.
And the Jaguars couldn’t come back they way they did a week earlier when they beat Pittsburgh 31-29 on Josh Scobee’s 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left.
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