FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In beginning their quest to get their grip on another Lombardi Trophy, the New England Patriots on Saturday wrapped their arms around another valuable prize:
The Leftwich statue.
The Patriots sacked Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich four times -- and corralled his backup, David Garrard, twice more -- putting a defensive stamp on their NFL-record 10th consecutive playoff victory, a 28-3 pounding of the Jaguars on a frigid night at Gillette Stadium.
Linebacker Willie McGinest was credited with 4 1/2 of those sacks, a postseason record, and he credited the fact that New England shut down Jacksonville's running game and built a 21-3 lead in the third quarter. Four of the Patriots' sacks came after that point.
"When you make a team one-dimensional and you know they have to pass, it's a no-brainer," McGinest said. "You have to go after guys."
In the big picture, the Patriots are chasing NFL history. They are aiming for an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory, and they took a big step with a convincing, though not always pretty, thumping of would-be spoiler Jacksonville. The Jaguars were invigorated by the return of Leftwich, who sat out the last five games recovering from a broken ankle.
"He's a strong guy in the pocket, hard to bring down, mobile, he's got a strong arm and can thread the needle," defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. " ... But we put together a pretty sound game."
The Jaguars, making their first postseason appearance since the 1999 season, were somewhat hampered by the fact that two of their linebackers were playing with casts on their arms and that Leftwich wasn't as mobile as he usually is.
"It held up right to the end," Leftwich said of his ankle. "You're out there playing, it's like playing on the beach, and it is all pain and dirt out there."
Next weekend, the Jaguars might be lying on the beach. The Patriots, meanwhile, are moving on.
Where the Patriots will head for Round 2 hinges on the outcome of today's Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game. If the visiting Steelers win, the Patriots would play at Denver on Saturday. If the Bengals win, the Patriots would play at Indianapolis on Sunday -- a must-see matchup between the top-seeded Colts and the tormentors who knocked them out of the playoffs the last two years.
Judging by past performances, the Patriots are better off playing Indianapolis. Denver always seems to give them fits, beating them in three of their last four meetings, including a 28-20 Bronco victory at Invesco Field in October.
It wasn't until the second half that the Patriots turned a four-point game into a laugher. The real morale-breaker came late in the third quarter when Tom Brady dumped a short pass to tight end Ben Watson along the Jaguar sideline. Watson spun away from the first tackler, tiptoed along the boundary, then pulled away from his pursuers for a 63-yard touchdown, the longest scoring reception in New England's gaudy postseason history.
The victory was in the freezer -- everything felt frozen in the 24-degree night air -- when Asante Samuel intercepted a Leftwich pass on the ensuing drive and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.
The defensive performance provided a much-needed boost to a struggling unit that was without its emotional leader, linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who watched from the sideline with a calf strain.
McGinest, the former USC standout, set an NFL record with the 16th sack of his postseason career. He was already ahead of the late Reggie White, who had 12, and Saturday's effort put him ahead of Bruce Smith, who finished his career with 14 1/2 .
The Patriots too staked a claim to the record books, although no one in their locker room was popping the champagne corks over it. They set a new mark for consecutive postseason victories, breaking the record of nine that they shared with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.
The streak "is a great accomplishment, I'm not going to downplay it," McGinest said. "But they're not passing out any trophies tonight."
Jacksonville, which had won eight of its last nine regular-season games, never got its offense on track. The Jaguars converted just one of 12 third downs, and their second-half drives ended punt, punt, interception, missed field goal, turned over on downs and turned over on downs.
The Patriots' defense also made up for some shaky play by its normally reliable offense. Quarterback Brady, who improved to 10-0 as a starter in the postseason, looked uncertain and jittery early. His second pass smacked Umpire Chad Brown in the face, and Brady later was charged with two fumbles. He was also sacked four times and didn't truly return to typical form until the second half.