(Jan. 7) FOXBOROUGH, MA—At one point in the second quarter, Byron Leftwich was a hot quarterback. He had completed seven consecutive passes. Rust? What rust?
Then it all turned sour for Leftwich and the Jaguars in the second half, under a barrage of big plays by the New England Patriots. Tom Brady went from possibly the worst half of football in his postseason career to one of his best, and the Patriots defense dominated the Jaguars in what became a 28-3 victory that eliminated the Jaguars from the postseason.
"We had a drop on third down and then we got them in a third-and-13 and we missed three tackles. You have that series of plays and they can run away with it," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said of a point in the third quarter that was the turning point in the game.
Here's how it happened:
• In the Patriots' first possession of the second half, Brady drove his team 81 yards in 12 plays, completing a three-yard touchdown pass to David Givens to give the Pats a 14-3 lead.
• The Jaguars' ensuing possession ended on a third-down drop by Jimmy Smith.
• Six plays later, Brady threw a short pass to tight end Ben Watson on third-and-13. Watson broke free from middle linebacker Mike Peterson, then shed Deon Grant and Gerald Sensabaugh en route to a 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
That third-quarter flurry by the Patriots sent them to the divisional round of the playoffs and put them two wins away from a chance to win their third consecutive Super Bowl title. No team has ever done that.
"I'm a Tom Brady fan. Any time they got him in there, they got a chance," Leftwich said.
Leftwich was playing for the first time since breaking his left ankle in Arizona on Nov. 27. At times he appeared to limp, but his performance in the second quarter supported his coach's decision to start him over David Garrard, who had quarterbacked the Jaguars to four wins in their final five games.
"I didn't feel no rust. I was excited to be back in the huddle. You just wish you had a few plays here and there and it's a different ballgame," Leftwich said.
Leftwich clearly needed a few more catches here and there, as dropped passes remained a season-long problem. What Leftwich needed most, however, was a running game.
"We came in wanting to throw it more. We thought there would be some opportunities attacking their secondary. I don't come out of the game feeling any differently. I thought we would have some opportunities and we did," Del Rio said.
The Patriots' pass-defense is ranked 31st in the league. It would seem coach Bill Belichick expected the Jaguars to attack through the air because the Patriots played a form of "cover two" pass-defense that put an extra man in coverage and one less man in run-support.
"They played us different than they played everyone else. They had an idea we might want to throw and they played 'two man.' They didn't blitz a lot," Leftwich said.
The Jaguars had expected the Patriots to blitz Leftwich often, considering his injury and inactivity. Instead, the Patriots flooded the passing lanes and sat back in coverage.
Fred Taylor had only eight rushing attempts. Greg Jones and Alvin Pearman had two each and the Jaguars had only 17 total.
The Patriots fashioned a balanced attack, running 28 times for 118 yards. Brady completed 15 of 27 passes for 201 yards, three touchdowns and a 116.4 passer rating.
In the first half, however, Brady completed just seven of 17 passes for 74 yards, one touchdown and a 74.1 passer rating. Even though the Patriots led, 7-3, Brady and the Pats appeared to be vulnerable. That circumstance changed quickly.
"I was concerned about making plays and we didn't," Del Rio said. "As a football team we feel like we have better football ahead of us. I'm proud of the year we put together. I'm disappointed for the finish."
The Patriots sealed the victory on the first play of the fourth quarter, when cornerback Asante Samuel stepped in front of a Leftwich pass intended for Reggie Williams. Samuel raced 73 yards for a touchdown.
Leftwich retired to the bench after the Jaguars' next possession. Garrard came on and moved the Jaguars to the Pats' six-yard line, but threw incomplete on third and fourth downs.
"Late in the game like that … I thought it was the right thing to do," Del Rio said of pulling Leftwich.
"The ankle was giving out. He didn't want to risk anything for the future," Leftwich said.
Leftwich finished the game having completed 18 of 31 passes for 179 yards, an interception and a 61.1 passer rating. Garrard was three of eight for 68 yards and a 68.8 passer rating. The Patriots recorded six sacks.
The major statistical difference between the two teams was the Patriots' advantage in third-down conversions. The Pats were seven of 14; the Jaguars were one of 12.
"We had a good season. We have a lot of young players and a lot of guys committed to this team. We'll be back next year," cornerback Rashean Mathis said.