JACKSONVILLE — It could have been a heck of a game. It could have featured Drew Bledsoe throwing bombs to Terry Glenn and Mark Brunell responding by scrambling to produce big plays. The touchdowns could have come in bunches, the game could have been decided by the last team to have the ball.
It could have happened that way if Bledsoe wasn't on the sidelines because of a broken finger on his throwing hand.
And if Glenn wasn't playing because of a broken ankle.
And if Brunell wasn't slowed because of a sprained left ankle that reduced his explosive scrambling to a subdued limp.
So instead, Sunday's wild-card playoff game between Jacksonville and New England was reduced to a defensive-oriented, grind-it-out, field-goal-heavy struggle that the Jaguars broke open in the fourth quarter for a 25-10 victory in front of 71,139 at Alltel Stadium.
With Brunell's mobility limited, Jacksonville built much of its game plan around rookie running back Fred Taylor, who responded with 162 yards rushing and a touchdown. The Jaguar defense also responded, holding the New England offense, under the direction of backup quarterback Scott Zolak, to only one first down in the first half and 206 total yards for the game.
It was Jacksonville's first victory over the Patriots after three losses, including a defeat two years ago in the AFC championship game.
"This is a new year, a new opportunity," Brunell said. "We're glad to finally beat the Patriots. This is special because of this year and not what happened [in the past]."
What happened this time is that Jacksonville won the right Sunday to advance to the second round of the playoffs next Sunday on the road against the New York Jets.
The Jaguars could have started to make their travel plans in the first half if Brunell hadn't been struggling, trying to shake off the rust which had accumulated in the three games he was sidelined because of the injury.
On several occasions he had wide open receivers, the kind of situation in which he normally drills the football right to them, only to have the ball uncharacteristically sail on him.
"I knew Mark was going to have to play his way into shape during the game," Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin said, "and I thought he did that."
One play in particular showed how much Brunell had suffered from inactivity. Faced with a third-and-goal at the New England six-yard line in the first quarter, Brunell looked to his right where tight end Damon Jones had broken free of coverage and was alone in the corner of the end zone.
A sure six points? Not unless Jones could instantly find a trampoline, the ball soaring well over his head.
For the second time in the quarter, the Jaguars had to settle for a field goal , Mike Hollis connecting from 24 yards out after making one from 35 yards earlier.
When the Jaguars did finally get into the end zone, it was because of the legs of Taylor. After taking a handoff on a draw play from the New England 13-yard line. Taylor headed left, got a block from tackle Tony Boselli and was gone, the Patriots able to do no more than swipe at Taylor as he ran by to give the Jaguars the 12-0 lead they would take into halftime.
"He's a very humble guy," Jacksonville tackle Leon Searcy said of Taylor. "He knows he depends on the guys up front in the dirt and, every time he comes back into the huddle, he says, 'Thanks guys.' "
Brunell didn't have many opportunities to thank his offensive linemen in the first half. Unable to move out of the pocket as he normally can, Brunell was subjected to enough pressure from onrushing defenders that he aggravated the ankle injury.
Coughlin was even tempted to take his starting quarterback out. Brunell, however, talked him out of it.
"We didn't get into an argument," Brunell said with a grin on his face. "I just encouraged him, I should say, to keep me in there."
In the third quarter, Coughlin had bigger worries than Brunell's ankle. His defense, which had held the Patriots to 54 total yards in the first half, suddenly couldn't stop the Zolak-run offense.
On New England's first possession of the third quarter, Zolak led an 85-yard drive in 17 plays that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by Robert Edwards and made the score 12-7.
After Adam Vinatieri's 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots--as bad as they had been--were only behind, 12-10.
Jacksonville needed a big play, and wide receiver Jimmy Smith needed to do something to redeem himself after having dropped a pass while racing down the right sideline with an open field in front of him.
"That is one of your biggest fears," Smith said, "that with a playoff game on the line and the chance to make a big play, you'll let it get away. It happens. I'm human. But then, I was more determined than ever to do something, to make a big block or catch a touchdown pass.