A 28-3 loss to the Patriots in a wild-card playoff left Jacksonvilleunsatisfied, but a more mature Byron Leftwich at quarterback, an intimidatingdefense and the team's youth-only two starters are older than 31-give theJaguars a shot at overtaking Indianapolis. "When you come out of nowhere tomake the playoffs,'' says Leftwich, "you go into the next season hungry togo further."
Jacksonville's 2005 schedule was tailor-made for a coming-out party. TheJaguars went 8-1 to finish the regular season, and all those wins came againstteams that did not go to the postseason. This year's slate-nondivision foesinclude Miami, New England, plus the top-to-bottom tough NFC East foursome-willbe a better test of Jacksonville's overall strength. But don't forget, theJaguars boosted their confidence last season with two big victories: aconvincing 26-14 home win over the Seahawks in the season opener and a 23-17overtime road conquest of the Steelers five weeks later, and you know wherethose two teams ended up.
"I'm sittingdown to watch the Super Bowl," Leftwich says, "and I call [runningback] Freddie Taylor and say, 'Man, Pittsburgh and Seattle. We beat 'em both!'I get off the phone, and I get a text message from [linebacker] Mike Petersonthat was like, Look at this! We beat these guys! What we learned last year andtake into this year is that we can play with the best."
In camp, Leftwichshowed no ill effects from the broken left ankle that caused him to miss fivegames last season. He needs to improve his accuracy (his completion percentagewas 57.9 in 2005), and his four young receivers can help. Most important, oneof them has to step up and fill the void left by the retirement of Jimmy Smith,the seventh-leading receiver in NFL history. Third-year wideouts Ernest Wilfordand Reggie Williams are pegged as possession receivers, and tight end MarcedesLewis is only a rookie. That leaves Matt Jones, last year's first-round pickand a converted quarterback, as the likely go-to guy. "He's going to be ourX factor, our playmaker," Leftwich says. "After one play last year Iasked him, 'Were you open on that one?' He said, 'I don't know.' Matt waslearning all year. Now he's going 100 miles an hour."
WhereJacksonville made a big leap in coach Jack Del Rio's first three seasons was ondefense, particularly the pass rush. The Jaguars' sack total has risen eachyear under Del Rio, from 24 in 2003 to 36 in '04 to 47 last year, second bestin the league. He employs a sack-by-committee concept, and five front-sevenplayers had at least five sacks in '05. Defensive ends Reggie Hayward and PaulSpicer don't get mentioned among the NFL's great pass-rush combos, but theyshould be. They combined for 16 sacks last year, and though each weighs closeto 290 pounds, they're quick enough to get around the more athletic offensivetackles. "When you think of our defense, usually you think of our tackles[Marcus Stroud and John Henderson]," says Del Rio. "That's about tochange."
The coach willget a better read on his defense, which ranked sixth in the league last season,when he sees how it performs against the stronger teams. "You don't win thedivision by talking about it," says Del Rio. No, you win it by beating theColts at home on Dec. 10.
8 N.Y. JETS
22 at Houston
20 N.Y. GIANTS(M)
26 at Buffalo
3 at Miami
31 at KansasCity
NFL rank T20
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .488
Games against playoff teams 6
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE JAGUARS
> ByronLeftwich is making good progress at quarterback, but he needs to get rid of theball quicker or he'll never last. He takes way too many big hits.
> I'd ratherhave Greg Jones, at 255 pounds, running the ball than Fred Taylor. Jones is atough, physical back, more of a Jack Del Rio-type than Taylor is.
> Del Rio hasto find a way to get running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the second-rounder out ofUCLA, on the field. He runs like a bullet and will be very hard to tackle.
> I would nottrade this defensive line for any other in football. No other team has thiscombination of rush ends and run-stuffing tackles.
> If middlelinebacker Mike Peterson played in New York, he'd be as big as MichaelStrahan.
Matt Jones betterbe good. If he's not, this team has zero downfield weapons.
Teams are lookingfor bigger, more physical cornerbacks who match up with today's oversizedreceivers, and the 6'1", 195-pound Mathis began playing like a prototypebig corner last season. The fourth-year pro may prove to be the best covercorner in the division, and he is also a dominant force in stopping the run.Last year Mathis had more tackles (69) than even Pro Bowl defensive tackleMarcus Stroud (42).
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COACH JACK DELRIO (26-22 in NFL), fourth season with Jacksonville
NICK GREISEN (NewAcquisition)
SACKS 8 1/2
SACKS 7 1/2
BRIAN WILLIAMS(New Acquisition)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 10/19/15T DEFENSE 14/7/6
TAKING AIM With a quartet of young receivers, Leftwich should improve upon his 57.9 completion percentage last season.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BIRKWITZ