FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -If this is how the rest of the playoffs go, New England fans are going to stay nervous.
The Patriots' 31-20 win over Jacksonville on Saturday night put them at 17-0, matching Miami's unbeaten 1972 season. But the Jaguars sure tested Patriots' fans nerves for three quarters. Silenced them, in fact, except for a few boos that came down from the stands when the teams left the field at intermission tied at 14.
That goes with the unbeaten territory, which creates huge postseason expectations. And the Patriots know it.
``I was a little nervous this week, because it was my first playoff game in a few years,'' said Randy Moss, who had just one catch for 14 yards, albeit a big one on a fourth down that eventually led to New England's first touchdown.
``I wasn't sure what to expect.''
The same went for a defense that allowed the Jaguars to take the opening kickoff and march 80 yards to take a 7-0 lead. ``We were flat,'' acknowledged Rodney Harrison, whose fourth-quarter interception, his record-tying fourth straight playoff game with an interception locked things up. ``I don't think we were intense enough at the start.''
The fans?
They loosened up when Tom Brady hit Benjamin Watson from 9 yards out to give the Patriots a 28-17 lead in the final minute of the third quarter. But not until then.
This is all about the stakes being so high now for New England.
In the regular season's final game, the one that made the Patriots the first team to finish 16-0, everyone had fun - even the losing Giants - in a rollicking 38-35 game. Sure the Patriots made history, but the victory, in which the Pats trailed by 28-16 in the third quarter, was meaningless because New England still could attain its goal, a fourth Super Bowl victory.
Now, it's serious business.
If the Patriots lose, next week or in the Super Bowl, it renders this season a failure - to the team, to the fans, to their obsessed coach. Yes, Bill Belichick will mutter some pleasant platitudes about the guys that beat him. But then he will go into seclusion, study every bit he can and try to figure out what went wrong.
Saturday night's game demonstrated what might go wrong, especially if Peyton Manning and the Colts show up next week at Gillette Stadium.
Because David Garrard, who has nothing like Manning's credentials, gave the Patriots fits, finding open receivers on almost every series. In the first 3 1/2 quarters, New England stopped Jacksonville only twice, forcing a fumble by Garrard on a sack by Ty Warren in the first quarter and a punt at the end of the first half, when the Jaguars weren't trying very hard.
On the other hand, the Jags couldn't stop the Patriots either, letting Tom Brady dink and dunk his way down the field. He completed his first 16 passes, most of them short, and finished 26-of-28 for 262 yards and three touchdowns. When he scrambled out of the pocket and finally got one deep for 53 yards to Donte' Stallworth, it set up the score that gave New England a 31-20 lead and put the game out of reach.
The only time they were ``stopped'' was when Brady took a knee at the end of the half and when they ran out the clock at the end of the game. Their first punt came with 30 seconds left in the game.
Belichick acknowledged his team didn't play well on defense, especially in the first half, when the Jaguars scored two touchdowns and only stopped themselves with that fumble.
``We got a little pep talk at halftime,'' is the way Harrison put it.
Asked who gave the talk, he chuckled and replied: ``Who do you think?''
Overall, there was the sense that the Patriots felt this was the first game of a new season.
``You know you go through all the months, the training camp, the practices, the 17 weeks but now you start fresh,'' Brady said. ``Now, it's a one-game season. We got our first out of the way. But it's a hard road when you get to this point.''
The Patriots know it.
Their nervous fans know it, too.
``One step closer to victory,'' read a sign held up by two of them at the end of the game.
The first 16 don't count any more.
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