Later today, the New England Patriots will host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. The meeting be the fifth playoff game between the two teams, tying the Jaguars with the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers for the Patriots' most frequent postseason opponent. New England won three of those contests – among them one other conference title game: 1996's.
Coming off a 28-3 win over the Steelers in the divisional round, the AFC East champion Patriots hosted the Jaguars at Foxboro Stadium. In front of a sellout crowd of over more than 60,000, the home team started well into the contest. After forcing a three-and-out on defense, New England's special teams unit tackled Jacksonville's punter for a loss of 16 yards following a bad snap.
Only two plays after the turnover on downs, running back Curtis Martin put the Patriots up 7-0. Both defenses then continued to play dominant football after the game's first touchdown – with the Jaguars' making the next big play: A red zone pass attempt by New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe was picked off and set up a Jacksonville field goal drive.
It did not take long for the Patriots to get the momentum back, though. The team's very next series increased its lead to seven points again: A 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri split the uprights and put New England ahead 10-3. And it was also Vinatieri who added to the Patriots' lead before halftime as the very last play of the first half was a successful 20-yarder.
Coming out of the locker rooms, the two teams' defenses came up with big plays. First, New England's stopped Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell on a 4th and 1 attempt; three plays later, Jacksonville's got its offense the football back again as it forced and recovered a Drew Bledsoe fumble. The takeaway inside Patriots territory set up another field goal – it would be the closest the team would come.
While Vinatieri missed a 46-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, Jacksonville failed to turn the mistake into points. Instead, Patriots cornerback Willie Clay intercepted Mark Brunell in his team's end zone to keep the seven-point lead intact. New England was unable to capitalize on the turnover but would score immediately after its three-and-out punt.
On a rushing attempt by the Jaguars' James Stewart, linebacker Chris Slay stripped the running back. The loose football wound up in the hands of safety Otis Smith, who returned it 47 yards for a touchdown that set up New England 20-6 just outside of the two-minute warning. Jacksonville's ensuing comeback attempt ended after a mere two plays when Tedy Bruschi picked off Brunell to seal the game.
If New England wants to have a similar result today and defeat the Jaguars to advance to the Super Bowl – its eighth since the 1996 season –, the team needs to play a similarly complete game later today.