Despite losing their quarterback, the Jaguars have the depth and the favorable schedule to keep them in the playoff hunt
It's not a great idea to ask the Jaguars why they play the league's best team, the Colts, so tough. Inquire as to why Jacksonville and Indianapolis split their last four meetings or why the Colts have outscored the Jags by a measly total of six points in those games, and you're likely to get the kind of answer defensive end Reggie Hayward spat out after a 24-17 win at Arizona on Sunday. "Screw the Colts," Hayward said. "Put that in your magazine. The reason we play them good is because we're good."
No argument there. With the win over the Cardinals, the Jaguars (8-3, second to Indy in the AFC North) put themselves in good position for a playoff spot. In fact, with a schedule that has three opponents who are a combined 6-27 and only one (the Colts) with a record better than .500, the loss of quarterback Byron Leftwich for a month with a broken left ankle doesn't seem so devastating to the offense. The Chiefs and the Chargers, two teams that are a game behind Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card race, have significantly tougher schedules down the stretch. So the notion of inexperienced backup David Garrard steering this ship into the playoffs isn't a reach.
Nevertheless, the Jags want you to believe that without Leftwich they're sunk. They want to stay under the radar. "He's our star," says coach Jack Del Rio. "The last month or so he'd found a great rhythm. It's going to be really tough without him."
But if this is truly a four-week injury--that was Del Rio's best guess on Monday--Leftwich would make it back for the final regular-season game, against Tennessee at home. If Garrard can hold the fort until then, Jacksonville will be a stubborn out in January. This is an opportunistic team with a plus-12 turnover margin through 11 games. The Jaguars have found alternatives to oft-injured running back Fred Taylor and ageless wideout Jimmy Smith: Second-year back Greg Jones has been rugged and steady spelling Taylor, while second-year wideout Ernest Wilford and rookie receiver Matt Jones have combined for nine touchdown catches. Despite making only three starts in four NFL seasons, Garrard was impressive on Sunday, looking especially poised in letting his blocks develop on six runs for a total of 61 yards.
Jacksonville's defense, which ranks third in the league, is as physical and chippy as an old Buddy Ryan--coached unit. Tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, former first-round picks, crash the offensive line with 640 pounds of up-the-middle bulk, allowing playmaking middle linebacker Mike Peterson, one of the league's top tacklers, to mop up. There's no premier pass-rushing threat, but the quick Hayward and the stouter Paul Spicer (12 sacks combined) are adequate. Rashean Mathis, a smooth cover corner (four interceptions), is a rising star who should earn a Pro Bowl nod. "We're good enough to make some noise in January--how much I don't know," says Smith, 36. "But we've proven to ourselves, week to week, that we belong with the best teams in the league."
The Jaguars' depth made the difference against the Cardinals. Garrard ran for a touchdown, didn't throw an interception and managed the game well. Rookie Derrick Wimbush, a free-agent pickup, returned a kickoff 91 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. And backup defensive tackle Rob Meier contributed his fourth sack in as many games, plus a late fumble recovery that sealed the win.
David Garrard Derrick Wimbush, Rob Meier ... unknown players but postseason players, most likely. "That's us," Garrard says. "No-names, backups, whatever. Nobody showing us any love. That's O.K. Playing well is enough for us."
GREEN BAY QBS
The Pack Will Stick with Brett
Last year, in the midst of a lost season, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells decided not to play bonus-baby quarterback Drew Henson much, though Parcells knew there was no future in rickety veteran Vinny Testaverde. Why not give the kid a shot in two or three of the final, meaningless games? "Because," Parcells said, "I never coached a meaningless game." Green Bay coach Mike Sherman echoed that sentiment last week in explaining why he plans to continue to start 36-year-old Brett Favre instead of 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers. "You play to win every game," Sherman said, "regardless of your record."
In the case of the 2-9 Packers there's also the matter of wanting to keep Favre from retiring. "If you want to keep him around," Sherman said, "you keep him playing"--and you try to win every Sunday.
"Don't you think it would be presumptuous of me to get ready for something that isn't necessarily going to happen?" Sherman said. "Brett has given me no indication that he's going to retire. His skills aren't diminished. In some ways he's been better than ever this year. I just don't see him going home to Mississippi for good and sitting on that tractor every day. Not the way he's playing, not the way he's moving in the pocket and making plays."
Getting Wild Down South
How do you figure the favorite in the NFC South? Eight of the 12 divisional games take place in the last month of the season, including two matchups between the Panthers (8-3) and the Falcons (7-4) and two pairing the Bucs (7-4) against the Saints (3-8). Carolina has won five in a row from Tampa Bay, and Tampa Bay has taken eight of 10 from Atlanta, yet Carolina is 1-9 versus Atlanta in their last 10 meetings.... What's odd about the first two coaching hires by Lions president Matt Millen-Marty Mornhinweg, who lasted two years, and Steve Mariucci, who was fired in his third season on Monday--is that those two men are so different from Millen philosophically. From his days as a linebacker with the Raiders, Millen is a blood-and-guts guy. Mornhinweg and Mariucci are more even-tempered. Millen's next hire will likely be a my-way-or-the-highway type, someone like Niners assistant head coach Mike Singletary.... Look no further than quarterback to see why the Bengals are 8-3 and the Ravens 3-8. Midway through the third quarter of Cincinnati's 42-29 win over Baltimore on Sunday, Carson Palmer's quarterback rating was 151.4 and Kyle Boller's 0.0. Said Boller, who is playing for his Ravens future over the next month, "I can't play the way I did for this team to win."
It may sound like sacrilege to compare the 2005 Chicago defense with that of the legendary '85 Bears, but after 11 games the '05 unit--which, with Alex Brown (right) tormenting quarterback Chris Simms, carried the 8-3 Bears to a 13-10 win over the Bucs--stacks up pretty well.
1985 (NFL RANK)
2005 (NFL RANK)
POINTS PER GAME
YARDS PER GAME
YARDS PER CARRY
YARDS PER PLAY
SACKS PER GAME
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PETER READ MILLER (2)
NO SWEAT Garrard was poised and effective after Leftwich (inset) broke his ankle.
BOB ROSATO (BEARS)
TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS (FAVRE)
STILL THE MAN Preparing for the post-Favre era is not in Sherman's end-of-year plans.