In Jaguars, Patriots find plenty of give

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FOXBORO, Mass. -- While he was suffering through a midseason losing streak marked by his team's sloppy play, Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda observed that most NFL games are lost, rather than won.

Marchibroda's words echoed throughout yesterday's AFC championship game. The New England Patriots earned the right to be called the best team in the conference, but they hardly resembled the beasts of the AFC East with a decidedly unimpressive, 20-6 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Give the Patriots' defense credit. That unit has been on a roll for the past two months, and yesterday it stopped what had been the hottest remaining offense in the league by forcing four turnovers. New England contained the hottest postseason quarterback in Mark Brunell and kept the Jaguars out of the end zone.

The Patriots have won two playoff games without allowing a touchdown. Yet they are hardly headed to Super Bowl XXXI on a wave of momentum. Did you notice the dour expression on coach Bill Parcells' face as the final seconds ticked off the clock? Parcells might have been thinking that, with an offensive showing like yesterday's -- the Jaguars basically gave the Patriots 17 points with turnovers and terrible special teams play -- he could be in for a long night at the Superdome.

The AFC finalists had two of the most high-powered offenses in the league. But, going into the fourth quarter, neither offense had mustered 200 yards. The game featured six combined turnovers, dropped passes, strange play-calling, more inconsistency from New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe and too many unfinished drives. Only three points were scored without help from a turnover or special teams mistake.

Fittingly, the outcome turned on two Jacksonville miscues in the game's final four minutes. First, Brunell drove Jacksonville 58 yards and had the Jaguars within 5 yards of tying the score at 13. But when he tried to hit tight end Derek Brown across the middle of the end zone, Brunell never saw safety Willie Clay, who cut in front of Brown for the interception.

The Jaguars got the ball back with 2: 36 left and were 58 yards from the game-tying touchdown. Running back James Stewart picked up 5 yards, but Patriots linebacker Chris Slade knocked the ball loose -- right to cornerback Otis Smith, who sped 47 yards untouched for the title-clinching score.

Some of the highlights and lowlights:

Pressure: Jacksonville was supposed to be a loose team that would be unaffected by the pressures of winning another road game, but the Jaguars came out with lumps in their throats.

A false-start call and a holding penalty stalled their first two possessions, but more important, punter Bryan Barker inexplicably decided to run with the ball after catching Rich Griffith's high snap while standing against the Jacksonville goal line. Barker was tackled at the 4, and two plays later, Curtis Martin's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Patriots an easy, 7-0 lead.

Defense: New England's defense frustrated the Jaguars at many turns. It held the Jaguars to 3.1 rushing yards per carry, played its usual effective zone pass coverages, and blitzed more often than usual to bother Brunell. Slade and defensive end Willie McGinest had especially good games. McGinest outplayed Jacksonville left tackle Tony Boselli, his former USC teammate. Before their defense sealed the victory, the Patriots preserved a 13-3 lead by stopping the Jaguars' on fourth-and-inches at the New England 30 five minutes into the second half.

Ends to Means: When Jacksonville running back Natrone Means went down with a sprained right ankle with about six minutes left in the first half, the Jaguars lost some steam. Means returned for the second half to give the Jaguars a lift, but he was clearly not the same back who had amassed 315 yards in Jacksonville's two playoff victories.

Conservative I: The Jaguars got to this game by playing with a wide-open offensive philosophy. Losing Means didn't help, but Jacksonville's game plan was too conservative. The Jaguars were facing the league's 28th-ranked pass defense, yet they spent most of the day going for short gains with slant-ins and curls underneath, instead of challenging New England's suspect secondary with more deep passes.

Conservative II: The worst call of the game goes to the Jaguars, who, on third-and-eight from the New England 12 and trailing 13-3 late in the third quarter, elected not to try scoring a touchdown. Instead, Brunell dumped a 1-yard pass completion to Stewart in the left flat, and Jacksonville settled for a field goal.

Blown coverage: Jacksonville's pass defense was suspect coming into the game, and the Jaguars reinforced that reputation by blowing a basic, three-deep pass coverage near the end of the first half. Somehow, safety Chris Hudson let New England wide receiver Shawn Jefferson get open to catch a 38-yard pass from Bledsoe along the left sideline with eight seconds left. Two plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 20-yard field goal to give New England a 13-3 halftime lead.

Pub Date: 1/13/97

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