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Game Preview: Week 18, Patriots vs. Jacksonville

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Execution. Those are you keys to Saturday's Wild Card matchup between New England (10-6) and Jacksonville (12-4).

That's it. That's all there is to it. The team that does both parts equally well wins. It's a mantra for Life, but let's not get too profound. It is particularly applicable to this game, though. These teams haven't faced each other only five times, and while New England holds a 4-1 series lead, the Jaguars are a bit of a mystery -- a mystery with the league's fourth best record this season.

In the four wins, the Patriots scored anywhere from 20-28 points. They scored 10 in a loss in Jacksonville in 1999. Jacksonville scored 25 in their win, and anywhere from 6 to 25 in the losses. The Jacksonville win was a playoff game, and the Jags went on to get pasted by Tennessee in the AFC Championship.

The last time the Pats and Jags met was just more than 2 years ago in a cold game at Gillette Stadium: 25 degrees at kickoff with an 8 mph northerly wind (and 50 percent humidity, for whatever that's worth). New England won that one 27-13. The National Weather Service forecast calls for a kickoff temperature of 23 degrees with a 3 mph westerly breeze and 53 percent humidity. The only expected change in conditions is a 6 percent increase in humidity.

Players from both sides are downplaying the impact the weather could have.

"I really don't think that it's going to affect anything," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "It's not like we're standing in 80-degree weather and they're standing in the cold."

""In college, I played in snow just about every weekend,"" said Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich. ""We have a lot of guys that played in the snow. I don't think the weather will bother us.""

Of course, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber said the weather wouldn't be a factor when the Buccaneers were in town.

Jacksonville has played in seven games with temperatures of 32 degrees or less, they have won three of them, including their last two: last year against Green Bay (when they went 10-6) and this year against Cleveland.

But let's face it: Lambeau isn't what it used to be, and Browns Stadium hasn't been. Gillette is one of the most feared arenas, and it's going to be much colder than 32 degrees.

Still Jacksonville had the third best record in the conference behind only Indianapolis to whom they lost two and Denver to whom they also lost. The rest of their schedule wasn't nearly as tough, and they did barely beat San Francisco, 10-9, just four weeks ago. All their recent eight wins in nine games were against teams with records 6-10 or worse. They beat Seattle, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, all before Week 7.

The Jaguars also have size on their side. Let's start with their defense.

The heart of Jacksonville's defense is right in the middle of the line, tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Like the Pats D-line, these two guys are so fearsome, they often command double-teams, freeing the defensive ends and linebackers to make the big plays.

"You have to deal with them every play," Belichick said. "It's not like you have a corner where you can throw to the other side or you have an outside linebacker (where) you can run away from him. It's two tackles. There is no play where you can run that you don't have to block them."

As a result, ends Reggie Hayward, Paul Spicer, Rob Meier and Bobby McCray have combined for 27 1/2 sacks, six forced fumbles, and almost constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, Hayward (hamstring) and Spicer (broken wrist) are both listed as questionable for tonight.

The Patriots offensive line, beset by injuries like every other unit this season, will have their work cut out for them.

Elsewhere, all four of the Jags starting defensive backs are 6 feet or taller. Meanwhile, Andre Davis (6-1) and David Givens (6-0) are the only Patriot receivers that tall.

It's not much better on the other side of the ball. Leftwich is 6-foot-5, and every receiver and tight end is 6-foot-1 or taller. Of course, most of the Patriots d-backs and all of the starters are 5-10 or less.

As for the Jaguars size, you know what Belichick would say about it: "It is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it, so we'll just have to deal with it."

That's where the preparation comes in. Knowing what's coming at you, devising a system to defend it, and then practice, practice, practice.

Then there comes the real problem: Fred Taylor, a guy who has the ability to bully his way around if you give him a step. Fullback Greg Jones, who had nearly 600 yards this season, is a handful and a half too.

The Patriots have done an outstanding job stopping the run late in the season. Four of the last five teams New England faced have accumulated 41 yards or less. If they're going to play next week, they're going to have to limit Taylor and Jones and find a path to Leftwich. If Leftwich has time to throw, it could be a long day for the New England d-backs.

If there is a weakness in the Jaguars defense, it may be at linebacker, where there are good, not great, players. The Patriots tight ends will probably be important. Watch for Ben Watson to have the best game of his young career.

It will be as important for the Patriots to run, even if it means subbing running backs every play, since almost all of them continue to nurse injuries. Brady is going to need some of the pressure taken off. That will come from runs to the outside and lots and lots of screens, dumps and quick-release passes. Brady will have to be extra alert to pressure, and extra conscious of linebackers and d-backs preparing to jump routes.

Of course, the names everyone has been talking about Leftwich and David Garrard. Leftwich may be rushing himself back from a broken bone in his left ankle suffered during the Jags' Nov. 27 win over Arizona. Garrard, a notably more mobile quarterback, has gone 4-1 since then, losing only to Indianapolis and only by 8 points.

Leftwich, the better downfield thrower, is expected to start. That's probably bad news for New England if his ankle is 100 percent, because of the Patriots suspect defensive secondary. If Leftwich has time, and even if he doesn't, he's probably going to take a few shots downfield. New England is going to have to pressure Leftwich like the pressured Chris Simms, Brooks Bollinger and J.P. Losman. Of course, Leftwich is far better than all three of them.

Garrard could be the X factor if he plays. He may not huck the ball downfield, but he will move in the pocket and could be a significant threat to pick up first downs running. The Pats would certainly need to adjust if he enters the game midstream. He'll be less of a threat in the long run if he plays the whole game.

Speaking of X factors, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi is expected to play, although he is still listed as questionable with the calf injury suffered against the Jets on Dec. 26.

Walt Anderson, who's in his 10th year of officiating, is the referee for tonight's game. His crew is notorious for throwing a lot of flags, so the more disciplined team may have an advantage there. The crowd might also help play a role in helping draw a few flags.

Prediction: Patriots, 34-24.

Tonight's game can be seen on ABC, locally on Channel 5. Al Michaels has your play-by-play on and John Madden is your analyst. As usual, you can catch a better audio description of the game on WBCN 104.1 FM with Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti.

Quotes in this story were take from wire reports.