JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Coming off consecutive prime-time games at home and facing one of the NFL's worst teams on the road, the New England Patriots were poised for a letdown.
They surely didn't expect a near meltdown.
Tom Brady overcame a rough start by throwing two touchdown passes, and the Patriots held on to beat the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars 23-16 on Sunday.
"We came out flat and I think it showed out there," Patriots receiver Wes Welker said. "We've got to do a better job of starting fast and doing what we do to take control of the game. "
A week after falling behind 31-3 against San Francisco, the Patriots found themselves down 10-0 in Jacksonville. Brady had two interceptions in the first quarter, the second one helping the Jaguars (2-13) build a double-digit lead.
But the Jaguars faded in the third quarter for the fourth consecutive week, lost for the 11th time in the last 12 games and set a franchise record for losses in a season.
Brady had a lot to do with the home team's latest setback, finding his rhythm after a sluggish start and picking apart Jacksonville's defence.
He hooked up with Welker for a 2-yard score on the second play of the fourth quarter, putting the Patriots (11-4) ahead 23-13. That seemed like plenty of cushion against the offensively challenged Jaguars. Jacksonville, though, had two decent chances to tie things in the closing minutes.
Trailing by a touchdown, the Jags faced third-and-goal at the 1 when tight end Zach Potter jumped before the snap. So the short-yardage situation became a passing play, and Chad Henne was sacked, leaving Jacksonville with a fourth-and-goal play at the 10.
Chandler Jones hit Henne as he tried to throw, and Patrick Chung intercepted the floater over the middle.
"It's a bad feeling, obviously," Potter said. "It puts our team in a bad situation there. It's not the one play that cost us the game."
Potter said he had trouble hearing the snap count because thousands of Patriots fans scoped up tickets and helped give Jacksonville its biggest home crowd since 2004.
"It was really loud, which you don't usually expect at home," Potter said.
Coach Mike Mularkey, though, blamed the officials for failing to recognize and penalize New England for yelling out cadence during a hard shift.
"That was disappointing because that was brought up to the officials before the game," Mularkey said. "That was addressed. We practiced it. We practiced it the whole week with those guys shifting with the cadence. ... Obviously they didn't call it and we jumped. Very frustrating."
Regardless, the Jaguars got the ball back after the Patriots failed to run out the clock.
Henne connected with Toney Clemons on fourth down with 22 seconds remaining and then Jordan Shipley for an 18-yard gain that put them at the New England 12. But Chung intercepted Henne's final pass, essentially a jump ball to the middle of the end zone.
"A win is a win, but we know we've got to play better no matter what," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "It's better to come out here when you're not at your best and get a win. I think this team really understands it's all about us. We've got to play our best each week. It's disappointing knowing that we didn't play as good as we could."
New England avoided consecutive losses in December for the first time since 2002.
Brady completed 24 of 41 passes for 267 yards, his worst outing in six games against Jacksonville. Welker caught 10 passes for 88 yards, passing Jerry Rice and Andre Johnson for the most 10-catch games (18) in NFL history. Stevan Ridley ran 18 times for 84 yards.
Brady entered the game having thrown for 1,207 yards, with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions, in five wins against the Jaguars. His string of success ended with his first pass, though.
Ridley tipped the ball down the sideline, and safety Chris Prosinski picked it off for his first interception of the season. Jacksonville moved the ball, but settled for a field goal.
And that was the story of the day for Mularkey's team.
The Jaguars had the ball inside New England's 25 seven times, but came away with a touchdown and three field goals.
And not scoring touchdowns against the league's most prolific offence is hardly a formula for success.
"We had them on their heels for a while," Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "They just capitalized, got a few interceptions and a few first downs on us. We held their scoring average down, which is good, and held them to a lot of field goals, which was excellent. It still wasn't enough."
Henne completed 29 of 51 passes for 348 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions. His 3-yard TD pass to Justin Blackmon to open the game was Jacksonville's first touchdown on its opening possession since Oct. 9, 2011, against Cincinnati.
But the ending is all that matters for Jacksonville, which left owner Shad Khan with decisions to make about Mularkey and general manager Gene Smith.
NOTES: Brady has thrown a TD pass in 47 consecutive games, tying Johnny Unitas for second on the NFL's all-time list. He trails Drew Brees by seven. ... Mularkey gave every player a baseball bat before the game with the words "violent, physical, relentless" on it as a motivational tool. ... Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts III and G Uche Nwaneri left the game with concussions.
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