Sweet Seventeen

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Jan. 12 -- The New England Patriots picked up right where they left off in the regular season. Quarterback Tom Brady was nearly perfect, with three touchdown passes and only two incompletions, and the Patriots remained unbeaten by easing to a 31-20 triumph over the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC semifinal here Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots improved their record to 17-0 and moved to within two victories of an undefeated season and a fourth Super Bowl title behind Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. They advanced to next weekend's AFC title game, in which they will host the winner of Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers. The Patriots, the AFC's top playoff seed, beat both of those teams during the regular season.

"We're 17-0 and it's great," Brady said. "But it all comes down to this week."

Brady added another breathtaking performance to his season for the ages, completing 26 of 28 passes for 262 yards. He threw two touchdown passes to tight end Benjamin Watson and another to wide receiver Wes Welker.

The Jaguars managed to keep Patriots wideout Randy Moss under wraps. He had one catch for 14 yards.

"They got back to the old way to cover me, two or three guys on me the whole game," Moss said.

But that left the Jaguars with too little manpower to pressure Brady or cover his other receivers, and they were picked apart by Brady. He connected on his first 16 passes, with his initial incompletion coming 4 1/2 minutes into the third quarter. One of his incompletions came on a pass that went through Watson's hands, and the other came on a throw dropped by Welker.

"Trying to take away Randy or trying to take away any one player, you're vulnerable in other places," Brady said.

Tailback Laurence Maroney also did his part, running for 122 yards and a touchdown for the Patriots. The fifth-seeded Jaguars (12-6) got two touchdown passes from quarterback David Garrard in a 22-for-33, 278-yard performance. But they failed to dominate the game with the running of tailbacks Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who totaled 66 rushing yards.

"The plan that we put together was good and sound," Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio said. "We went toe to toe with these guys for a while. . . . It was just not quite good enough to advance against a team of that caliber."

The Patriots were coming off a two-week layoff since they completed the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history by beating the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in their regular season finale. The Jaguars, fresh off a last-second win in Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs, had become a trendy pick as the team with a chance to come to Foxborough and oust the Patriots from the playoffs. Del Rio left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-one gamble from the Patriots 43-yard line on the game's opening drive. Not only that, but the Jaguars had Garrard roll out to his right and throw a deep pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis, who had gotten beyond cornerback Asante Samuel.

That 34-yard completion gave the Jaguars a first down at the 9. On third down from the 8, Garrard moved around in the pocket and, as he was being brought down by linebacker Mike Vrabel, flipped a touchdown pass to wide receiver Matt Jones. Garrard's left knee hit the ground about the same time he released the pass, and Belichick reached for his red challenge flag. But Belichick tucked the flag back into his sock, where he keeps it, without issuing a replay challenge, and the Jaguars had the lead. It was the first time during Belichick's coaching tenure with the Patriots that they'd surrendered points on their opponent's opening drive of a postseason game.

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