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Pats have look of playoff team


They are as different as their city's climates. The Patriots are 12-2 and headed for the playoffs; the Jaguars are 4-10 and certain only of a fourth consecutive losing season.

But no one in the Jaguars' locker room believed the difference between the two teams to be that distinct. To a man, the Jaguars spoke of missed opportunities. Quietly, they claimed that had it not been for a dropped pass by Fred Taylor and an errant pass by Byron Leftwich, the Jaguars would've gone into the halftime locker room with a 14-13 lead.

It's one of the great marketing tools of today's NFL. The winners point to the scoreboard; the losers claim it could've been the other way around, but for a play here and a play there.

So what are we to believe? Are the Patriots 14 points better than the Jaguars? Is that the gap that separates the Jaguars from the league's playoff level?

Let's remember this was billed as a measuring-stick game. The Patriots are one of the elite teams in the NFL and, in a cold-weather game with a distinct postseason feel, the Jaguars would get a good indication of where they stood in their quest to join the league's upper crust.

So what is the measurement? How wide is the gap between the Jaguars and the Patriots, and might the Jaguars be able to bridge that gap next season?

"The difference? They're more experienced. They know how to win. They're two years removed from the Super Bowl and it appears they're going back," Jimmy Smith of the Patriots. "I'm proud that this team hung in there with these guys," Smith added.

Yeah, that's what the Jaguars did; they hung in there with the Patriots. At no time did the Jaguars threaten to take the lead, but at no time did it appear as though the Patriots could coast to victory. They were challenged by a "new" team with a rookie quarterback.

On the positive side for Jacksonville, it moved the ball for a lot of yards against one of the game's best defenses. In the first half, the Jaguars twice had drives end at the Patriots' five-yard line and one concluded at the Pats' 16 in a missed field-goal attempt. And don't forget the sure touchdown pass Taylor dropped, and the pass Leftwich threw wildly for a wide-open Kyle Brady.

Then there's the negative: On the first drive of the game, with bodies still warm and snow still an hour-and-a-half away, the Jaguars allowed the Patriots to move 66 yards in nine plays, which marked the first time this season the Patriots scored a touchdown on their first possession of the game.

What happened in all the rest of the game was a result of the Patriots' opening-drive touchdown. It set the tone for the remainder of the game, especially for a defensive-minded team such as the Patriots, who managed to keep the Jaguars at arm's length without having to do anything daring.

It's the way championship-caliber teams play. They don't attempt to bury a team in a barrage of early-game points. They get the lead, then spend the rest of the game protecting that lead. It's not only the way championship-caliber teams play, it's the way cold-weather championship-caliber teams play.

At that, the Patriots were successful, but that's where those missed opportunities enter the picture. Had the Jaguars been able to score touchdowns when they got deep into Patriots territory, the Patriots may have felt a greater sense of urgency. As it turned out, they were never really pressured, and that's the difference between the two teams: Though the Patriots' lead was a mere seven points for most of the game, the home team never felt pressured.

"Third down; we just weren't able to get off the field," middle linebacker Mike Peterson said of the Patriots' 50 percent efficiency on third down. "We have to find a way to get off the field."

The Patriots' ability to sustain drives allowed coach Bill Belichick to play the field-position game, which is the ultimate in conventional late-season football. Consider this: The Patriots' average drive starting point was their 44-yard line; the Jaguars' average starting point was its 25-yard line.

What's the difference between these two teams? Style of play. The Patriots also dropped a sure touchdown pass, and they fumbled the ball away deep in Jaguars territory, but they were able to overcome those "missed opportunities" because they played the kind of late-season, cold-weather, protect-the-lead, ball-control, field-position football that is the specific property of playoff-caliber teams.

That's the gap that has to be closed.

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