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INDIANAPOLIS — Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio's goal for his team to win the AFC South this season was taken about as seriously by most league observers as a Brett Favre retirement announcement. Considering the way the Jaguars defense was shredded in the final month of the 2009 season, and GM Gene Smith only being in Year Two of his rebuilding project with major questions unanswered on both sides of the ball, Del Rio's objective seemed more like a lame-duck head coach trying to appease his boss — owner Wayne Weaver, who drew a line in the sand in the offseason by saying that he fully expects to be in the playoffs — than a realistic goal.
And after starting the season 3-4, with the four losses coming by a combined 99 points, speculation grew that Del Rio might get the axe before the club's Week Nine bye.
But then something interesting happened in Dallas in Week Eight. Maurice Jones-Drew and David Garrard erupted, throwing 35 points up on the board. The defense, which was giving up points at an alarming rate, stood tall, playing inspired, hungry football and forcing a couple of key turnovers, including coming up with an impressive goal-line stand at the end of the first half. And the Jaguars, who appeared dead in the water one week earlier, showed some signs of life, knocking off the Cowboys 35-17. Following their bye week, the Jags returned home to face the Texans, winning on an improbable Mike Thomas Hail Mary reception as time expired and proceeded to knock off the Browns in Week 11 despite turning the ball over six times, including four straight possessions in the second half. It appeared that something special was in the making in Jacksonville.
Fast forward to Week 15 in Indianapolis; the Jags had won five-of-six, and rushed for a franchise record three straight 200-yard outings in the process. With just one more win over the division-rival Colts, they would clinch their first-ever AFC South title. The Colts had not shown that they could stop the run, which seemed to bode very well for a physical Jacksonville club. The stars were perfectly aligned for Del Rio to make good on his ambitious goal.
But the Jaguars, like so many times before, were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game hit the wall, the Colts' league-worst rushing attack went off for 155 yards, and two costly second-half turnovers enabled Indianapolis to come away with a 34-24 victory. The loss left the Jaguars wondering what could have been and put the Colts in the driver's seat in the division.
With two more Colts' victories — in Oakland in Week 16 and at home against the Titans in the season finale — Indianapolis will once again be crowned AFC South champions. But if the Colts slip in either of those games, it opens the door for the Jaguars, who host the Redskins on Sunday and travel to Houston in Week 17.
The following are three areas where the Jaguars excel, and three areas that remain concerns, plus a peek at their postseason chances.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Mojo roll: The Jaguars have found different ways to win while attempting to win their first AFC South title. But the one constant before their Week 15 road block was the Jaguars' ground-and-pound offense enabling Jacksonville to impose its will on opponents, especially late in games. It all starts with the 208-pound wrecking ball in the backfield. Jones-Drew craves the football in crunch time. He trails only Titans RB Chris Johnson (75) with 74 fourth-quarter carries and has two game-winning TDs in the final two minutes — a one-yard plunge against the Browns in Week 11 that was set up by his own barreling 75-yard reception two plays earlier and a 30-yard explosion up the middle in Week 14 against Oakland. One could make a compelling argument that no non-QB has meant more to his team this season. Helping to keep Mojo rising despite career-highs in rushing yards and carries are backup RB Rashad Jennings and TE Marcedes Lewis, both of whom have had breakout seasons and lightened Jones-Drew's load on third downs and in the red zone. The physicality up front comes courtesy of FB Greg Jones and a much-improved offensive line, which has keyed Jacksonville's second-half surge.
Tackles take over: The loss of defensive leader and best pass rusher Aaron Kampman, who was without question the club's best defensive player at the time of his season-ending knee injury in mid-November, easily could have sent the Jaguars into a downward spiral. But the arrival of young DTs Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu as one of the most dominant pairings in the league has energized the club, and made for very tough sledding for opponents to run up the middle. In the last two weeks, however, Raiders RB Darren McFadden and Colts RB Donald Brown have had success running against the Jaguars. Knighton and Alualu have not gotten the same push into the backfield that they were getting earlier in the season.
Strong special teams: The offseason acquisition of special-teams ace Kassim Osgood was not met with the same fanfare as the Kampman signing, but the Jaguars knew that coupling him with fellow Pro Bowl special-teams beast Montell Owens would win them at least one game this season. In Week 14, their intuition proved to be correct. Osgood forced a key fumble late in the third quarter with his team trailing by a TD, and Owens recovered the fumble, and later provided the key block on a kick return that sprung rookie Deji Karim 65 yards to set up Jones-Drew's game-winning score. Karim and Mike Thomas have given the Jaguars a spark in the return game that has been missing for years, as witnessed by Thomas' 78-yard punt return for a TD in Week 15. PK Josh Scobee, despite cooling down after a sizzling 14-for-14 start to the season, has a remarkably strong leg and the composure to drill field goals in the most pressure-packed situations — Scobee's 59-yard yarder to beat the Colts in Week Four is the third-longest game-winning field goal in history.
CAUSES FOR CONCERNS
Piddling pass defense: For as stout as the Jaguars have usually been against the run, they have been every bit as inadequate against the pass. DEs Jeremy Mincey and rookie Austen Lane are as energetic and relentless as they come, but they do not bring the same pass rushing ability or knowledge in getting to the quarterback as Kampman does. As a result, the Jaguars have struggled to generate pressure with their front seven, which has left an inexperienced and makeshift secondary extremely vulnerable — the Jaguars only managed one sack and two QB hits on Manning in the loss. CBs Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox have bounced back after slow starts, but '09 waiver-wire pickups turned starting safeties, FS Don Carey and SS Courtney Greene, have been picked on regularly. The Jaguars are extremely thin in the secondary, as well, with backup S Sean Considine being forced into the starting lineup after Greene suffered a shoulder injury in Week 13. Manning took advantage of Considine and the Jaguars' nickel CB William Middleton regularly.
Which Garrard shows up? In the Jaguars' eight wins, Garrard has an average passer rating of 116.5; in the four losses in which Garrard played all four quarters, his average rating is 63.1. When the Jaguars' ground game is ripping off big chunks of yardage, Garrard has been outstanding. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has done a masterful job playing to Garrard's strengths, which are short, quick passes and allowing Garrard to occasionally get outside the pocket and make things happen with his legs. But when asked to drop back and pass 30 times a game, the results have not been as kind to Garrard and the Jaguars. When under duress, he has a tendency to hold on to the football too long and make poor decisions. His offensive line has also let him down in pass protection at times this season. Garrard played extremely well in Indianapolis, but his one mistake, a costly second-half pick, killed a drive in Colts' territory with his team desperate to put points on the board.
Ball protection: The Jaguars have the second-worst turnover/takeaway ratio in the NFL (-12). It is nearly impossible to be successful in this league when a team does such a poor job protecting the football and forcing the other team to make mistakes. Making matters worse, the Jaguars' miscues have all come at the worst possible time, changing momentum instantly. Del Rio has constantly harped on the Jaguars forcing more turnovers, but the club is a difference maker or two away still on defense.
The Jaguars must get back to their brand of smash-mouth football to control the clock and limit the pressure on Garrard and the secondary. Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings have the ability to wear defenses down and Jacksonville needs to stick with its bread and butter long enough to give Garrard proper chances to take his shots downfield. Teams such as the Ravens and Jets are not likely to bully the Jags, but AFC signalcallers such as Brady, Roethlisberger and Rivers will have little trouble exploiting the Jaguars' glaring weaknesses. If Jacksonville is to have any success against elite QBs, it simply can't allow them to stand in the pocket, surveying the field without any threat of being hit. This led to the Jaguars' demise down the stretch last season and it has reared its ugly head again in 2010.