The Patriots are the AFC East champions for the seventh time this decade and they left doubt about it with a resounding a 35-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This was a feel-good win for the Patriots. The offense found its identity and struck a balance between the pass and run that was reminiscent of this franchise's Glory days, which is the song that is blaring over the speaker system at Gillette right now.
The defense stepped up after Laurence Maroney's fumble at the 1-yard line and set the tone by stuffing Jacksonville on third and 1 and fourth and 1 from the Jags' 35. Now, 10-6, the Patriots can sit back and decide how to handle next week's game against the Texans in Houston.
Keep a close eye on that Chiefs-Bengals game, which is 10-10 with about five minutes to go in the fourth. The No. 3 seed could fall into the Patriots' lap.
(Update at 5:20 p.m.)
So much for the No. 3 seed falling into the Patriots' laps. The Bengals escaped against the Chiefs with a 17-10 win. Now, both the Patriots and the Bengals are 10-5 and 7-4 in the AFC heading into their season finales. The Bengals play at the Jets and the Patriots are at Houston.
If Patriots fans weren't already rooting for the Jets today against the Colts (you know that whole 16-0 thing) then they certainly should be next week.
With both the Patriots' and the Bengals' games scheduled for 1 p.m., it will be interesting to see how coach Bill Belichick approaches next week's game. Does he get his guys some rest or go for the No. 3 seed and the outside possibility that the Patriots, who went 8-0 at home this season, could host an AFC title game if they go to San Diego and knock off the Chargers in the second round?
The Colts, who are the No. 1 seed, have been known for early playoff exits, so that scenario can't be completely discounted when trying to calculate how important getting the No. 3 seed is. Of course the Patriots could finish 11-5 and still not get the No. 3 seed if the Bengals win to go to 11-5 and have a better strength of victory.
Taylor made -- So, Fred Taylor has returned from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle and one thing is apparent -- he is having a hard time cutting laterally. The ability to "skate" and dip and dash laterally has always been one of Taylor's greatest strengths and it's not there. He is doing a good job hitting the hole and running north-south, but his trademark bounce is missing. In short, Taylor is a running back who can't make sharp cuts.
Randy!, Randy!, Randy! -- Remember the last time Randy Moss played in Gillette Stadium, when he was drawing boos from the Foxborough Faithful for a one-catch, one-fumble, two-drop performance against the Carolina Panthers? Well, that seems like eons ago now. Moss just caught his third touchdown reception of the game and now has 13 touchdown receptions on the year. While the TD was reviewed after a Jacksonville replay challenge, the Foxborough Faithful broke out in chants of "Randy!, Randy!, Randy! that echoed throughout the edifice.
Moss even had fun with a fan who dressed up like him with an Afro wig and what I found to be a personally offensive mask that evoked a minstrel show. Hey, apparently it's just me that had a problem with the mask because Moss didn't seem to mind. He laughed when he saw the costumed fan on the big screen and even responded when the faux Randy did his trademark separation hand gesture by doing it right back and pointing to the big board and laughing some more.
One and done -- No points in the quarter and each team had the ball once. Jacksonville got the ball to open the half and marched from their own 26 to the Patriots 5 on a 16-play drive that ended on a Shawn Springs interception at the Patriots' 2. The Patriots got the ball at their 10 and drove to the Jacksonville 12 before the quarter expired.
Sweet 16 -- In the first half the Patriots showed better balance than a Cirque du Soleil performer. The Patriots ran the ball 16 times for 141 yards and a touchdown and threw it 16 times (14 completions) for 150 yards and three touchdowns. As colleague Adam Kilgore pointed out, the Patriots ran 32 plays in the first half and picked up 16 first downs.
Rolling, rollin', rollin' -- With apologies to Fred Durst (what the heck ever happened to him any way?), the Patriots are rolling big-time over Jacksonville and now lead 28-0 with 0:45 left in the half after Randy Moss's second TD grab of the day, a 6-yarder. This is the best the Patriots' offense has looked since the Indianapolis game. Earlier in the week both Brady and Moss talked about the lack of an identity or feel for the offense. They seem to have found it here today against the Jaguars with a nice mixture of run and pass, varying formations and the absence of an over-reliance on the shotgun formation. This looks like the Patriots, circa 2004.
Five and dime (in) store -- The Patriots are continuing to use the five-and-dime, walkaround defense in passing situations that they had success with against Buffalo last week. They just used it on a third and 13 against Jacksonville and forced a 4-yard completion. They also used it on another third down. It's a good way for a team that has struggled to generate a pass rush to create the impression of one.
Come out and play (action) -- The Patriots have obviously seen something on tape with the Jaguars' defense because they are providing a steady dose of play-action passes. Tom Brady just hit Chris Baker on a 26-yard TD pass to put the Patriots up 14-0. Baker pushed off badly on Jaguars linebacker Justin Durant and should have drawn a flag for offensive pass interference, but the overall execution of the play was excellent to put Baker in a position to be one-on-one with Durant.
Brady bunch -- Seeing some nice offensive creativity here from the Patriots in the early going. On the 2-yard touchdown pass to Moss, the Patriots went out of the shotgun and had one running back (Kevin Faulk) in the backfield, split left, and one tight end (Benjamin Watson) on the line on the left side and a bunch formation with Moss, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to the right. The formation created some confusion for the Jaguars and freed Moss up running across the end zone.
It's a wrap -- Just curious, but did anybody have a problem with the way Brandon Meriweather wrapped up when he stuffed Jacksonville's Mike Thomas on the end around on third and 1? Heck of a play by Meriweather, who absorbed a lot of criticism this week for failing to wrap up Josh Reed last week. The play looks even better when James Sanders stuffs Maurice Jones-Drew on the next play on fourth and 1 at the Jacksonville 35. Pats won't be pushed around in their own house.
Fum-bell!!! -- Tough break there for Laurence Maroney, as he fumbles at the 1. That's his fourth fumble of the season, and third inside the opponents' 35. Before Maroney's fumble that was looking like one of the Patriots' best drives of the season, as they mixed in the run and pass to move from their 17 to the Jacksonville 1. The Patriots used the shotgun spread, but also mixed in the play-action pass on a 15-yard pass to Wes Welker and a 14-yard pass to Benjamin Watson. Play-action has been a missing element from the Patriots' offense this season.
Cornering the market (12:23 p.m.) -- One interesting part of the Patriots inactive list, which you can find here on the Extra Points blog, for today's game with the Jaguars is that the Patriots are going with only four corners, one of whom is Kyle Arrington, who is really more of a special teams player. With both Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler healthy scratches, in reality the Patriots are only going with three corners -- Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs and Jonathan Wilhite.
That tells you that when the Patriots go to extra defensive back sets they'll be more likely to bring in a safety and drop him down into the box to guard against the run, which is what Jacksonville does best. That would seem to be a sound strategy against a Jacksonville team that only has one real receiving threat in wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Torry Holt is one of the game's all-time great wideouts, but he doesn't have a touchdown this year.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.