Sunday, December 27, 2009

Halftime: Patriots 28, Jaguars 0

A handful of halftime observations from Gillette Stadium:

* The hats and T-shirts can come out early. Not only are the Patriots crushing the Jaguars, but the Texans are cruising against the Dolphins. Barring an epic turn of events both here and in Miami, the Patriots have won the AFC East and are bound for the playoffs.

That's great news not just for the banged-up Tom Brady, but also for Vince Wilfork (out), Ty Warren and Stephen Neal (still not playing every snap). All four can either leave the game early next week or sit out entirely.

* Maroney coughs it up. For someone who fumbled so rarely early in his career, Laurence Maroney appears to have caught fumblitis lately. The running back let the ball slip away at the goal line -- sound familiar? -- to end what to that point had been as impressive of a drive as the Patriots have put together all year. An 18-yard run by a slaloming Kevin Faulk and a 14-yard pass to Ben Watson in the red zone set up the play that should have ended in a touchdown -- but instead ended in a turnover.

Maroney did not return to the game for the rest of the half. Faulk and Sammy Morris handled the duties in the backfield from that point on, rushing for 36and 83 first-half yards, respectively.

* Patriots' offensive line dominates. For the first time all season, the Patriots debuted their best offensive line all at once: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Neal and Sebastian Vollmer. Not coincidentally, the Patriots marched right down the field -- Light, Mankins and Koppen opened some huge holes on the left side of the line -- on their first drive.

Dan Connolly replaced Neal on the first play of the second quarter, the touchdown pass from Brady to Chris Baker. It seems as though the Patriots decided to be careful with Neal, who sat out for two drives before returning.

That didn't mean Connolly was done, though: The veteran lined up as a fullback and threw a huge lead block to spring Morris on a 55-yard run through the right side. Connolly then led Morris through the left side for a one-yard touchdown run that pushed the Patriots' lead to 21-0 in the second quarter.

* Patriots rotate along defensive line. Likewise, the Patriots have been careful with the snaps played by defensive end Ty Warren. Mike Wright started the game at defensive end with Ron Brace at nose tackle -- but when Brace appeared to get pushed off the line on the Jaguars' first couple of runs, Wright moved to nose tackle with Warren in at defensive end.

That drive ended with safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders coming up from the secondary on back-to-back plays and making huge stops on short-yardage runs.

On the Jaguars' next two drives, Warren went back to the bench and Myron Pryor played nose tackle between Green and Wright.

* Banta-Cain is able. A week after tallying three sacks in Buffalo, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain kept building his case for a bid to the Pro Bowl. Banta-Cain, one of the few constants as the Patriots shuffled between their base defense and the mill-around defense they debuted against the Bills, has been the best defensive player on the field.

On back-to-back plays early in the second quarter, Banta-Cain sacked David Garrard and forced a fumble that the Jaguars managed to recover. On the very next play, Maurice Jones-Drew tried to run against that mill-around defense with no down linemen -- and Banta-Cain drilled him after a gain of just two yards. On the first play of the Jaguars' next possession, Banta-Cain and Wright combined to drop Jones-Drew for a one-yard loss.

* Oh, yeah: Moss and Welker. It's not fair to characterize it as Welker doing the dirty work and Moss getting the glory. On the biggest play of the Patriots' fourth scoring drive, Moss cleared out the defensive backs with a deep route down the right sideline, and Welker ran into the vacated team to catch a lob for a 29-yard gain.

(No one gets to gripe about Moss not trying this week.)

Welker has eight catches -- breaking his own single-season record in the process -- for 93 yards, and Moss has caught two passes, both for touchdowns.

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