Patriots look to clinch playoff berth vs. struggling Jags

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — When the Patriots had their seven-game win streak snapped two weeks ago at Indianapolis, rookie quarterback Mac Jones said the best thing to do was to “flush this game down the toilet and just roll.”

On the heels of another humbling loss to Buffalo last week, a new mantra has emerged from New England’s locker room heading into its penultimate regular season game against Jacksonville Sunday.

The gist? Stop analyzing the past and just win.

“Enough talk,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “It’s always been time to work. But no more of the little cliché lines and all that stuff. Now it’s really about time to work. These last two games mean a lot to us. We worked really hard and let some games slip through our hands. Hopefully we learn from that and will get things going this week.”

New England (9-6) handed its best chance to win the AFC East title over to Buffalo in its 33-21 loss to the Bills last week. But there are several scenarios involving combinations of wins and losses by multiple teams in which the Patriots can clinch a playoff berth this week.

The two simplest paths are a victory over the Jaguars, plus a loss or tie by division-mate Miami against Tennessee; a Patriots win and loss or tie by Las Vegas against Indianapolis would also get New England in.

It helps that the Patriots will be taking the field opposite a Jacksonville team that is already looking toward next season. The Jaguars (2-13) have lost seven consecutive games, including two straight since firing former coach Urban Meyer. As of Tuesday, they had already lined up eight interviews for the vacancy.

The urgency for the Patriots and future focus of the Jaguars has all but taken attention away from what will be a reunion of sorts between rookie quarterbacks Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence.

They grew up as friends, attending quarterback camps together up through high school. Both then went on to leave their college programs at Alabama and Clemson as national champions.

“I haven’t talked to him in a long time actually, but just have kind of obviously followed his journey,” Lawrence said. “We’ve kind of been aligned. He’s a year older than me, but still (we’ve) kind of gone through things at the same time, so I kept up with him. When I met him, he was a great guy. … We don’t talk a ton, but it’s been to cool to see his success this year. Obviously, they’re doing a really good job.”

Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, was thought to be a can’t-miss prospect. But he’s struggled in Year 1, throwing just one touchdown pass in Jacksonville’s last eight games.

Jones, the last quarterback taken in the first round in April, has had moments of stardom leading all rookie quarterbacks with 3,313 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. But he’s coming off in his worst two games of the season, throwing four interceptions.

Though their inaugural seasons have taken different paths, Jones said the respect each has for the other remains high.

“Obviously, we’re both rookies and we’re learning along the way together,” he said. “But it is fun to watch the crossover tape.”

INTERVIEWS UNDERWAY

The Jaguars held their first of their potential coaching interviews Thursday, with former Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson meeting with owner Shad Khan and general manager Trent Baalke.

Pederson and former Detroit and Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell are out of work and seemingly the easiest to get on the schedule.

Jacksonville requested permission to interview both Dallas coordinators, Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn; both Tampa Bay coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles; Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett; and Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.

MILESTONE WATCH

While New England’s offense has struggled over the last two games, running back Damien Harris has continued to add to his breakout season.

He enters the game ranked fourth in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns and has five 100-yard games, including two in a row.

It has helped power a rushing attack that ranks seventh in the NFL in 2021 with 18 rushing touchdowns. Two more would mark the first time in team history that the Patriots have reached 20 rushing TDs in back-to-back seasons.

SPECIAL TEAMS WOES

Jacksonville has another streak it would like to end Sunday. The Jags have allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns in as many weeks, letting Houston’s Tremon Smith take one back 98 yards on Dec. 19 and then watching Braxton Berrios break free for 102 yards last week.

Those were the third and fourth special teams meltdowns that resulted in touchdowns against Jacksonville in the last nine weeks. The others: an onside kick returned for a score at Seattle in Week 8 and a blocked punt for a score at Indianapolis in Week 10.

Adding to the team’s special teams woes, punter Logan Cooke (knee) was placed on injured reserve and the Jaguars will go with Joseph Charlton against the Patriots.

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AP Pro Football Writer Mark Long contributed to this report.

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