Luckily for the Patriots, style points don't count in the National Football League.
Because what everyone anticipated would be one of the biggest routs of the season -- the 10-4 Patriots, coming off a disappointing loss, against the 2-12 Jaguars, playing out the string -- was anything but. It wound up being a close-as-can-be nailbiter, which wasn't decided until Patrick Chung made his second end-zone interception as time expired.
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When he did, the Pats -- thanks to a fourth-quarter goal-line stand earlier in the fourth quarter that stopped Jacksonville a yard short of tying the score -- escaped with an important 23-16 victory. And important it was, as it kept alive their hopes for a first-round bye.
The Texans' home loss to the Vikings dropped their record to 12-3 as the Patriots were improving to 11-4. If New England wins at home next weekend against Miami and Houston loses at Indianapolis, the Pats will move ahead of the Texans into one of the top two spots in the AFC playoff field.
But there was no all's-well-that-ends-well feeling with at least some of the Patriots.
"That was a bad 60 minutes of football," said a morose Tom Brady (24-of-41, 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions) during a brief, minute-and-a-half meeting with the media. "We got outcompeted out there, outfought. We were lucky to win."
"We keep playing like that, we won't last much longer," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater.
The tone was set right at the beginning, as the Jaguars took the opening kickoff and, with seemingly minimal effort, sliced through the Patriots on a 9-play, 78-yard, 5 12-minute drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon. Brady then threw the first of his two picks, to Chris Prosinski, and that set up a 41-yard field goal by Josh Scobee and a 10-0 Jacksonville lead.
"I don't know if we were flat or what," said Vince Wilfork, "but . . . we weren't ready to go right away."
"They gave us a little bit of a different approach offensively" at the beginning of the game, said coach Bill Belichick. The Jags spread the Pats out and used wider splits to create more running lanes
"They did a good job of starting the game off with a little different style," said Belichick. "They really got the advantage on us . . . "
The Pats finally got untracked on their second drive, moving from their 20 to the Jacksonville 7 before stalling and settling for a 25-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. But the Jaguars resumed firing on their next possession, reaching the Pats' 25. They came up empty when Scobee missed a 43-yard field goal, yet managed to make it 13-3 minutes later when Scobee drilled a 35-yard field goal after Derek Cox picked off Brady.
After that, however, Jacksonville failed to score on its next possessions.
"We made some adjustments," said Belichick, later saying, "I think eventually we settled down and handled" what the Jaguars were doing.
As they did, Brady and the offense ran off 20 consecutive points -- a 49-yard field goal by Gostkowski with 5:29 to play in the second quarter that made it 13-6; a 14-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Danny Woodhead with 18 seconds to go in the half, tying the score; a 38-yard field goal by Gostkowski with 11:44 left in the third quarter, which put the Pats in front for the first time in the game, and a two-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Wes Welker on the second play of the fourth quarter -- as they built a 23-13 lead.
But just when it seemed that order was being restored, back came the Jaguars.
"We kept this ballgame a ballgame for 60 minutes," said a rueful Wilfork. "We're a lot better than what we showed today. We definitely are."
Jacksonville pulled to 23-16 on a 42-yard field goal by Scobee with 8:42 left. And after the Pats went three-and-out, Henne moved the Jags from their 34 to the Pats' 1, putting them right on the brink of tying the game.
That, however, was where the New England defense saved the day. First they stuffed Greg Jones on a second-and-goal from the 1 for no gain. After a false-start penalty on Zack Potter pushed the ball back to the 5, Dont'e Hightower sacked Henne for a five-yard loss back to the 10. The Jags went for it on fourth down with slightly more than four minutes to play, and Chung picked off a pass intended for Cecil Shorts in the end zone, preserving the lead . . . for the moment.
The offense, despite managing to earn one first down, was unable to maintain possession and close things out. The Pats had to punt and the Jaguars got the ball back on their own 38 with 54 seconds left and no tine outs.
A helmet-to-helmet hit by Chung on Shorts on the first play earned a 15-yard penalty and got Jacksonville into New England territory, at the 47. After three straight incomplete passes, Henne connected with Toney Clemons on a 17-yard, fourth-down pass that put the ball on the 30 with 39 seconds left. Two plays later, an 18-yard pass from Henne to Jordan Shipley put the ball on the 12, where the Jags had two shots at the end zone with eight seconds left.
On the first, Henne missed Clemons over the middle. And on the second, Henne released a floating pass to the end zone that was nabbed by Chung, ending the game.
(To make things even more interesting, Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey said he would have gone for the game-winning -- or game-losing -- two-point conversion had the Jaguars scored, instead of settled for the normal PAT and overtime.)
But there was no jubilation or relief in the ranks when it was over.
"We're lucky to get out of here with a win," said Stevan Ridley, who led the ground game with 84 yards in 18 carries. "That's the bottom line."