Observations from the Patriots' 35-7 win over the Jaguars:
1. Hats and T-shirts for all. Through all the ups and downs of the season, all the struggles -- fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, the Randy Moss debate, character issues, losing on the road, a young defense not holding up against upper-echelon teams -- when you walk into the locker room and see free hats and T-shirts, it signifies a great accomplishment in that you've won your division. Plenty of teams make the playoffs through the wild card, and when they lose, they have nothing to show for it. But when you win the division, even in a year that maybe hasn't been as successful as you hoped, it puts a stamp on things and is something you can hang your hat on. What you're shooting for are three sets of hats and T-shirts -- a division championship, a conference championship and a Super Bowl championship. So the Patriots want two more sets of these hats and T-shirts.
2. Laurence Maroney and ball security. I've spoken about Laurence Maroney all year and how the organization has valued him as a runner because of his youth and upside, even through his difficulties of not being decisive and hitting the holes. He was starting to make some strides throughout the year, but when you have a running back having problems holding on to the ball, that's something that can't be overlooked. Coaches say that when you carry the ball, you hold the fate of the team and the entire organization in your hands. If you can't be depended on to take care of the ball, the organization and team can't count on you. I think coach Bill Belichick finally had enough of Maroney's fumbles, which have come in critical situations, like short yardage on the goal line. Now that Fred Taylor is healthy, Sammy Morris is running well, and Kevin Faulk is in the mix, too, the Patriots have three runners who run hard and take care of the football. Maroney may get lost in the shuffle the rest of the year, or at least until the coaches re-establish confidence in him.
3. Defensive simplification. Young Patriots defenders said in the past that they liked it when coaches made things simpler, so they could do less thinking and go out and just play football. It looks like the defensive coaching staff has adopted that philosophy and has called the game, on first and second down, in base 3-4 sets. That's a defense these players have been taught ever since they came to New England; it's the Bill Belichick scheme. Then, when it's third down, you can implement some complicated blitz schemes, which they've done with multiple linebacker sets and walking those players around at the line of scrimmage, with some designated to rush and others designated to drop (and also with the option of bringing additional rushers from this package). On early downs, gone is the complicated 4-3 scheme where the middle linebacker makes the D-line calls to every player along the front. For young linebackers like Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, the 4-3 defense gave them a lot to think about -- rush calls, alignment rules -- and that can lead you to think more than you want and take away from your aggressiveness. On early downs in the base 3-4, a defense they know, they are freer to make plays.
4. Tom Brady's athleticism shines through. Brady finished 23-of-26 on Sunday, and you saw his athleticism on display through the play calling of quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien. Brady has always used footwork to avoid the rush and he showed a new move this game, when he ducked as Quentin Groves closed on him in the third quarter, gathered himself, and threw a completion. So that was another element of his pocket mobility -- the duck move. You also saw half rollouts down in the red area, with Brady moving out of the pocket. As he was moving to the right, he hit Benjamin Watson on a completion, then he hit Randy Moss on the same type of rollout for a touchdown. Moving Brady around not only gives the defense another element to think about but also protects him from being a sitting duck in the pocket. With the Patriots having wrapped up a home playoff game, this might be the last action Brady sees until the playoffs.
5. Questioning Jack Del Rio's decision on fourth-and-1. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter was probably the worst coaching decision of the game. Laurence Maroney gave the Jags a late Christmas present by fumbling on the 1-yard line to end the opening drive. The Jacksonville offense then created some breathing room after the recovery, running the ball out to the 35, but Del Rio took a huge risk by going for it. That decision backfired on him, as the Patriots took over and scored quickly. From that point on, the Jaguars players looked beat. You can't win a football game in the first quarter, but you sure can lose one.