Published December 21, 2012
| Sports Network
The New England Patriots will say all the right things about not looking past opponents and insisting that every Sunday's NFL challenge is worthy of the same 100 percent attention and preparation.
And they might even believe it.
But chances are, when the 10-4 AFC East champs arrive at EverBank Field to face a two-win Jacksonville team that's done little right since training camp, no one else will.
The Patriots enter the weekend in what's become their traditional position in the late going, pushing for high-end seeding in the AFC playoffs and making a mockery of the league's previous statistical watermarks.
New England sits third in the conference, trailing Houston by two games and Denver by one. It could still earn a No. 1 seed with two wins and two Texans losses, and can supplant the Broncos as second-best if the teams wind up with the same record at the end of this month.
Houston faces Minnesota and Indianapolis to end its season, while Denver meets Cleveland and Kansas City. But to hear the always affable Bill Belichick tell it, it really makes no difference.
"I'm not smart enough to understand the 80 different things that can happen," he said. "I don't really care. There's nothing we can do about any of them."
What they can do, in northeast Florida, is try to prevent a two-game losing streak for the second time this season.
The Patriots engaged in an instant classic on network television last Sunday night against visiting San Francisco, coming back from 28 points down in the second half to tie the game before ultimately losing it, 41-34.
Still, as it's done while establishing itself as a gold standard for the last decade, New England has won the games it's been supposed to win. The Patriots are 6-0 and are averaging 39.5 points per game against teams with losing records.
Ominously, the Jaguars are 0-6 against foes who've won more than lost.
"If you give the other team a chance, they're going to take it," New England receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "So you have to prepare the same way for every opponent."
Lloyd caught 10 balls for 190 yards against San Francisco while quarterback Tom Brady was 36 of 65 with a touchdown and two interceptions. He's averaged an INT per game in December after going five games in a row without throwing one.
"We had a pretty good streak there going of wins and it feels pretty good when you're on those winning streaks," Brady said. "And then when you lose, it feels like you haven't won a game in three years."
Likely to return to the passer's collection of toys is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who's missed four games with a broken forearm but remains third in the league with 10 touchdowns.
With or without him, the Patriots are tops in the league with 36.1 points per game. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are 29th among 32 teams, allowing 27.4 per week.
Jacksonville has lost three straight games this month and all but one since a 1-1 start in September. And even with two wins to end the year, it can do no better than equaling its worst record in franchise history -- the 4-12 mark of the 1995 team in its inaugural NFL season.
"No one thought we'd be in this situation with only having two wins this late in the year," linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "I think we have too many guys who can make plays and do things the right way. But for whatever reason, we haven't been able to bring it all together to win."
The Jaguars are 1-6 at home and have been routed more often than not, losing five games by at least 17 points. They're coming off an equally disheartening trip to in-state rival Miami, which ended in a 24-3 loss and continued a tailspin that's seen quarterback Chad Henne throw just one TD pass in three weeks.
Wide receiver Cecil Shorts caught six passes for 101 yards against Miami, but running back Maurice Jones-Drew is still unlikely to play after already missing eight games with a left foot injury. His absence hasn't helped Jacksonville's scoring output, which is second to last in the league.
The Jaguars have scored just 13 points in the last two weeks while losing to the Dolphins and Jets (17-10).
The Patriots have won all five regular-season matchups in the series, including a 35-7 decision at home in 2009. Last time the teams met in Jacksonville, in 2006, New England won, 24-21. Belichick is 5-2 in seven career meetings with the Jaguars, while Jacksonville's Mike Mularkey is winless in four tries against the Patriots.
"We have been very productive in practices it just hasn't carried over into the games for us," Mularkey said. "We've been very confident stepping on the field every Sunday because of the way we prepare. That hasn't changed and it won't change this week."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Because the Patriots have what appear to be significant advantages in all phases of the game, the mandate this week simply comes down to not letting an inferior foe slide under the radar and impact preparation.
It doesn't seem likely to be a problem for a Belichick team. And if the coach wants to rest his QB after a career-high in throws last week, a date with the league's worst rushing defense -- 148.1 yards allowed per week -- seems a perfect reason to go heavy on Stevan Ridley, who's already amassed 1,105 yards and scored 10 rushing touchdowns in 14 games. And if Ridley's recent fumbling keeps him in the dog house, make it Danny Woodhead.
For all the reasons mentioned previously -- and short of a divine intervention -- it seems just about impossible to forecast a Jacksonville victory. The Patriots do everything the Jaguars can do, only better, and it's hard to imagine the hosts will be revved up enough at 2-12 to mount the sort of emotional charge that an upset would require. With that, it becomes a question of how much.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 28, Jaguars 10