(The following is a recap of a simulation we performed in advance of Saturday's AFC Divisional playoff matchup. With permission from EA Sports, Boston.com utilized Madden NFL 08 for the xBox 360 console to predict the New England Patriots would defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 34-31. To view highlights from the simulation, watch the video above. And just so theres no mistaking it, well repeat it: The recap below is based on the simulation -- except the quotes; those we just made up.)
MY LIVING ROOM -- Perfection isn't always pretty.
The New England Patriots have proven as much their last seven games. After making of a mockery of Las Vegas point spreads for the first 10 weeks of the 2007 season, these Patriots have seemed mortal in recent weeks. Or, at least, as mortal as any undefeated team can look.
The Jacksonville Jaguars put a scare into the Patriots in our simulation of Saturday's AFC Divisional playoff game, but, like we've seen so many times during the evolution of this dynasty, New England made the big play when it mattered most.
With the Jaguars looking to put together a potential winning (or at least tying) drive in the final minute, Mike Vrabel came up with a sack that forced Jacksonville into the hurry-up, and quarterback David Garrard was intercepted by safety James Sanders to seal New England's 34-31 triumph in our simulated Madden NFL 08 AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
"They're all line drives in the box score," said the simulated Vrabel, whose second-quarter fumble recovery set up one of Tom Brady's two touchdown passes and helped the Patriots create some early breathing room. Vrabel finished with a team-high 11 tackles (2 for losses) and an interception.
"We're playing football next week and that's all that matters."
The Jaguars asserted themselves as the upset-minded foe they were billed to be when tight end Marcedes Lewis slipped free on a 33-yard touchdown reception early in the first quarter, but the Patriots responded on the ensuing drive (a 60-yard touchdown run by Laurence Maroney) and grabbed a lead they would not relinquish later in the frame.
Unlike nail-biters against the Ravens and Giants, the end result here never seemed in doubt. The Patriots repeatedly forced the Jaguars to settle for field goals during the middle quarters and New England opened a two-touchdown advantage during that span. Wes Welker's tackle-shaking 31-yard touchdown reception with 4:44 to go in the third frame put the Pats out front, 27-13.
Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that kept the Jaguars within a score. But Brady, he of an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes this season, ran for a decisive score from the 2 yard line in between Taylor's end zone jaunts.
"I'd rather let Laurence or [fullback] Heath [Evans] try to get that tough yardage down by the goal line, but we saw one of their linebackers sliding out to cover the tight end on the strong side and that opened up the middle of the field," said the simulated Brady. "[Center] Dan [Koppen] plowed a little lane for me there and I just followed him in."
Brady finished 27 of 41 passing for 285 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. The Jaguars took away the deep ball, so the Patriots took advantage of the space underneath. Tight end Ben Watson reeled in eight passes for 89 yards and wide receiver Randy Moss matches those numbers exactly (8 catches, 89 yards), with many of his catches coming in front of the safeties in the middle of the field.
Maroney finished with 117 yards on 18 carries (not stellar considering he produced only 57 yards on the 17 carries that didn't go for scores), but his biggest contribution might have been simply hanging on to the ball -- something the Jaguars struggled to do.
Jack Del Rio's charges produced 12 wins this season thanks in large part to their lack of give-aways. On Saturday, the Patriots recovered a pair of fumbles -- leading to 10 points -- and intercepted a pair of passes. Vrabel's interception stalled a potential Jaguars scoring drive late in the first half, while Sanders' pick sealed the victory.
"We had opportunities, but we didn't take full advantage," said simulated Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, whose numbers (17 of 27 passing, 316 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) didn't quite match the shimmering gold suit he wore following the game. "We settled for a lot of field goals when we could have had seven points."
Ironically, it was with Garrard sidelined that the Jaguars offense thrived. A strained calf temporarily pulled Garrard from the game in the fourth quarter and backup Quinn Gray completed 2 of his 3 offerings for 44 yards to set up Jacksonville's final touchdown (a 1-yard plunge by Taylor).
Garrard was back on the field for the Jaguars' final drive. On second down from his own 30, he tried to scramble toward the same hole that had opened late in last week's playoff game against Pittsburgh.
Didn't happen this time. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi was blitzing up the middle, which clogged the left side, where Richard Seymour had already attracted a double team. Vrabel, blitzing from the outside, dropped Garrard at the right hash as he tried desperately to break back toward the opposite side of the field.
Jacksonville went without a huddle with 40 seconds to play (its timeouts exhausted) and more pressure forced Garrard to step up in the pocket earlier than he would have liked. Garrard tried to hit Dennis Northcutt on a post route, but led him a bit too far and instead hit Sanders in the numbers.
"I remember how it felt when [Colts defensive back] Marlin [Jackson] picked Tommy last year," said the simulated Sanders, referring to the interception that sealed the Patriots last defeat -- a 38-34 loss in last year's AFC title game.
"Now we have a chance to go atone for that one."