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NFL playoffs

The Baltimore Sun

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If the New England Patriots needed a reminder of what it will take to finish a perfect season, Tom Brady provided it with another record-setting performance.

Despite the deep pass being taken away and seeing his most explosive receiver effectively negated, the poised Patriots quarterback again pointed the way with three touchdown throws and just two incompletions, leading the Patriots past the stubborn Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-20, last night in an AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

Brady finished 26-for-28 - setting a playoff record for completion percentage at .929 - for 262 yards. The Patriots scored on six of their first seven possessions and punted just once, in the final minute of the game.

Working primarily out of the shotgun and spreading out the physical Jacksonville defense with three- and four-receiver sets, Brady didn't force the ball downfield and patiently found the underneath targets, churning out touchdown drives of 74, 29, 82 and 76 yards.

"This is a whole lot different," said Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas, who spent the previous seven seasons with the Ravens. "Not to disrespect anybody, but I'm not used to putting up points. I've always come from a defensive-minded team. But the offense can beat you here as well as the defense and special teams. This is a complete team."

New England, which tied the 1972 Miami Dolphins' 17-0 record, will host the winner of today's Indianapolis-San Diego in the AFC championship game next Sunday. The Patriots are looking to close out an unprecedented start-to-finish feat: to become the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

Brady, who improved to 7-0 at home in the playoffs, connected on his first 16 passes and didn't throw his first incompletion until 4:33 into the third quarter.

He distributed the ball to eight receivers and threw only one deep pass, a 53-yard toss to Donte Stallworth. Even more interesting, Brady had as many blocks - he hit 275-pound lineman Reggie Hayward on a reverse - as completions to Randy Moss.

"When they're open like that, it's my job to hit them," Brady said. "They were open every time, so it's easy to play quarterback."

Brady's completion percentage broke the record of Phil Simms, who hit 88 percent (22-for-25) of his passes in the January 1987 Super Bowl and coincidentally covered last night's game for CBS.

Asked about Brady, coach Bill Belichick jokingly said: "Yeah, I was a little disappointed about the two he missed."

Behind an impressive performance by quarterback David Garrard (22-for-33 for 278 yards and two touchdowns), the Jaguars (12-6) gave the Patriots all they could handle but couldn't stay with New England when it counted.

Two dropped passes - by Dennis Northcutt at the 1-yard line in the third quarter and Matt Jones in the end zone in the fourth - essentially sealed Jacksonville's fate.

After enduring one of their shakiest efforts on defense, with sloppy tackling and coverage, the Patriots closed out the game with an interception by Rodney Harrison with 3:46 left.

"In the end, we played well enough to win," Belichick said. "We know it keeps getting tougher every step of the way through the playoffs."

Both offenses traded blows throughout, and the score was tied at 14 at halftime.

The Patriots then resorted to some trickery on the first drive of the second half. On first-and-goal from the Jaguars' 6, the Patriots faked a direct snap to running back Kevin Faulk. Brady took the snap, then found Wes Welker in the back of the end zone for a 21-14 lead.

As it did all game, Jacksonville was determined to match New England and drove down the field. But Northcutt dropped a potential game-tying pass from Garrard at the 1.

The Jaguars had to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Josh Scobee and trailed 21-17 in the third quarter.

That misstep allowed New England to take its first double-digit lead, as Brady hit a wide-open Ben Watson for a 9-yard touchdown to push the Patriots' margin to 28-17.

The Jaguars were in position to get a critical touchdown on their next drive, but Jones bobbled a pass in the corner of the end zone. Scobee's 25-yard field goal made it 28-20 midway through the fourth quarter.

But the Jaguars never got closer.

"It's definitely special," Thomas said. "It's very rare to get to the AFC championship game. I went there as a rookie, and here it is eight years later, I'm getting my second chance. That's why you do everything possible to keep playing."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Scoreboard

AFC Divisional

Patriots 31, Jaguars 20

NFC Divisional

Packers 42, Seahawks 20

Inside: Favre, Grant lead way as Green Bay plows through in the snow. PG 6D

Today

AFC: Chargers@Colts 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9 Line: Colts by 9 1/2

NFC: Giants@Cowboys 4:30 p.m., chs. 45, 5 Line: Cowboys by 7

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