Toronto Star

Jaguars need sharp claws

Climb to summit must go through frosty New England; all four home teams betting favourites

- GARTH WOOLSEY SPORTS COLUMNIST

Next challenge for the Jacksonvil­le Jaguars? Climb Mount Everest without oxygen? Fight sharks with toothpicks? Reverse global warming? Nah. Travel to Foxborough, Mass., and beat the New England Patriots. Simple. Maybe even (ha!) do-able. Stranger things have happened. Men have been to the moon and returned to tell the tale. Sports history is littered with the wreckage of sure things. If upsets did not happen, the entire world of sports would be sterile. There are football challenges and then there are the 16-0 Patriots, who have found a way to overcome anything and everything, any time and everywhere. Jacksonvil­le pulled the short straw when it knocked off the Steelers in Pittsburgh Saturday, 31-29, no mean feat, although they went into that one as the betting favourite, a rarity for a road team. Their date with the Patriots was ensured when San Diego last night eliminated the Tennessee Titans, who would have gone to New England had they managed to pull off the up-

set in southern California.

TheJagspla­yano-hokum,smashmouth style on both sides of the ball that is reminiscen­t of the dynastyera Steelers, one that may or may not be effective for a southern team playing again in a northern NFL outpost in mid-winter.

The Patriots are led by the passing arm of Tom Brady, league MVP, but can play whatever way it takes to win. They’ve opened as 111⁄ 2- point favourites, but will certainly not underestim­ate the Jaguars, hot as any team (but them) of late.

It is in this next round of play that home-field advantage becomes most apparent, when the benefits of a week off this late into the pulverizin­g grind of a season pays off. Players get a chance to heal their wounds and coaches get those extra few days to devise. No surprise, then, that all four home teams are the betting favourites this week.

New England has advantages, but so, too, do the other bye-benefiting teams: Indianapol­is, Dallas and Green Bay.

The Packers, on the (possibly) frozen tundra and with cheesehead­s in attendance, are favoured by 81⁄ at

2 home to Seattle, who knocked off Washington Saturday, 35-14. The Cowboys, in Big D and early 71⁄ 2- point picks, get the New York Giants, who eliminated the Buccaneers in Tampa yesterday, 24-14, behind the steady, error-free play of Eli Manning, who lately has been doing a more than pass-able impersonat­ion of big brother Peyton.

The Giants, notably, are now 8-1 on the road, 3-5 at home (0-2 vs. Dallas) and came off a bruising game vs. New England while Tampa chose to rest many of its key players last week. So much for the rest theory.

Manning The Elder and his defending champion Colts are at home to LaDainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers, who booked through with a second-effort home 17-6 win over the Tennessee Titans yesterday. The bookmakers made Indianapol­is as the 81⁄ 2- point pick. Having won their first playoff game since 1994 and out from under the Marty Schottenhe­imer whammy, San Diego has to be as loosey-goosey as any outfit left standing.

Last year, both the Colts and Patriots won wild-card and divisional games, Indy going on to defeat the Patriots in the AFC final before beating Chicago in the Super Bowl. Anything’s possible.

 ?? CHRIS O’MEARA/AP ?? Giants’ Dave Tollefson puts a ferocious lick on Bucs quarterbac­k Jeff Garcia during yesterday’s wild-card game.
CHRIS O’MEARA/AP Giants’ Dave Tollefson puts a ferocious lick on Bucs quarterbac­k Jeff Garcia during yesterday’s wild-card game.

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