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The NFL

Pinball Wizard
Jaguars rookie Maurice Jones-Drew, all 5'7" of him, ricocheted through the Colts and boosted Jacksonville's playoff hopes

THERE WERE five minutes left in the third quarter of Jacksonville's game against Indianapolis on Sunday, and Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew's day was nearly done. After catching a 15-yard pass from quarterback David Garrard, the 5'7", 212-pound rookie out of UCLA headed to the sideline, his calf cramping. Jones-Drew received intravenous fluids, went back in for one more play, then gave way to third-stringer Alvin Pearman. Jacksonville was on its way to a stunning 44--17 victory over the Colts at Alltel Stadium, and there was no need for Jones-Drew to force the issue. He'd had his breakout game: 166 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries, plus a 93-yard kick return for another score.

With veteran Fred Taylor adding 131 rushing yards on nine carries, Jacksonville upped its record to 8--5 and strengthened its wild-card position. As for Jones-Drew, he climbed into contention for Rookie of the Year. "You have to worry about winning first," he said. "It felt good to be out there helping the team." That he has done. He leads all running backs with 6.1 yards per carry and is fifth in the league in touchdowns (12). With 666 rushing yards, he ranks second among rookies to Indy's Joseph Addai (867).

Known as Maurice Drew at UCLA (he added Jones in the off-season to honor his late grandfather, Maurice Jones), the Antioch, Calif., native was the most explosive back in the '06 draft not named Reggie Bush. In 36 games for the Bruins he scored 39 touchdowns and amassed a school-record 4,688 all-purpose yards. In '04 he set an NCAA record for punt-return average with 28.5 yards. But mostly due to his height he dropped to the second round, the 60th pick, and playing behind Taylor, he was even further obscured. But on Sunday he raised his profile by tearing up the NFL's worst rushing defense. His franchise-record 303 all-purpose yards gave him 1,700 for the season, 242 behind Taylor's club record. "God has blessed him with some great ability," says coach Jack Del Rio. "It just came in a shorter package than most."

Instead of wearing his college number, 21, Jones-Drew switched to 32, as in the number of NFL teams that bypassed him with their first pick. "I play with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "That's the way it's going to be for the rest of my career. When I'm on the field I still feel that pain that the [opposing] coach didn't believe in me." Even without such motivation Jones-Drew would be difficult to take down. Nicknamed Pinball by quarterback Byron Leftwich in training camp, he uses his size to advantage, hiding behind a gargantuan offensive line; and with a low center of gravity and thick thighs reminiscent of Earl Campbell's, he makes would-be tacklers feel like they've hit a fire hydrant. "The little guy is a load," says Colts linebacker Cato June.

"He does a great job in blitz pickup, which I thought would be the toughest part for him," says Taylor. "The running is easy."

"We all know how special he is," says Garrard. "In a game like this, you need big players to make big plays."

FALCONS ON NOTICE

Make or Break In Atlanta

Last month, with his team in the midst of a four-game skid, Falcons owner Arthur Blank told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that missing the playoffs "is definitely not good enough from any perspective." Observers read that as an ultimatum to players, coaches and club executives, and the message appears to have sunk in. Atlanta's 17--6 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday pushed the team to 7--6 and back into NFC wild-card contention. "There was pressure already," says running back Warrick Dunn, "and when the owner comes out and says what he said, that just puts the exclamation point on it." Still, it's clear Blank will have his eye on some key figures down the stretch.

Coach Jim Mora
Since reaching the NFC Championship Game as a rookie coach in the 2004 season, Mora's club is 15--14 with a penchant for late-season swoons. But last spring he signed an extension through 2009, and he's well-regarded by his players, who gave him a game ball after they snapped their losing streak two weeks ago.

Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp
His play-calling has been criticized, but against the Bucs, Knapp was sharp—as when he called a draw on third-and-four in the third quarter and fullback Justin Griffith juked for a 21-yard score. But questions remain as to whether Knapp's West Coast system is the best fit for Mike Vick. Speaking of whom....

Mike Vick
His record as a starter is 38-24-1, but the first pick in the 2001 draft knows it'll take much more to silence critics who say he doesn't throw well enough to win a championship. Atlanta has the top rushing offense in the league—and ranks last in passing. "To run a controlled passing attack, it's essential to have an accurate passer," says an AFC scout. "He's a rare guy who causes defenses to prepare differently, but whether his inconsistencies can improve remains to be seen."

Wideouts
For years, receivers have taken blame for Vick's poor passing stats. This season they've earned that blame. After five dropped passes in a loss to the Saints, Blank lamented, "We have three first-round draft choices [Michael Jenkins, Ashley Lelie and Roddy White], and none of them can catch the ball." Lelie, who came from Denver in an off-season trade, wasn't a factor for much of the season but made two acrobatic catches on Sunday. "We need that," Mora says. "They've been under so much fire that anytime they catch it we all kind of get excited."

Pass defense
Injuries to ends Patrick Kerney and John Abraham, DB Kevin Mathis and linebacker Edgerton Hartwell don't fully account for the pass defense's slipping to last in the NFC. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has allowed too many big plays.

G.M. Rick McKay
McKay's strong personnel record has been sullied a bit by those butterfingered receivers, and the six-year, $45 million free-agent deal he gave Abraham wasn't looking too hot, with the former Jet missing five of the first 12 games. But on Sunday Abraham forced a fumble on a sack, and linebacker Demorrio Williams picked up the ball and carried it 54 yards for a TD that gave Atlanta the lead for good.

Said Vick of the victory, "It gives us confidence to go into Saturday's game against Dallas and play for something that we really need. That's a win."

Read more from Nunyo Demasio at SI.com/nfl.

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Bird Flu

AS AN INTERVIEW ended last Friday, Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson was asked for a closing thought. "A prediction of us winning the Super Bowl—how about that?" said Peterson. Well, how about it? Last year's conference champs are 8--5 and three games up in the NFC West, but they hardly look title-ready. In a 27--21 defeat at Arizona on Sunday they lost three fumbles and allowed Edgerrin James to become the fifth back to go over 100 against them. Yes, their injured players are returning, but quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (above), who suffered a sprained knee on Oct. 22, still has limited mobility. Twice on Sunday he scrambled for a first down, but "that's because I was running for my life," he said afterward. Still, the quarterback says the critical mistakes, such as the turnovers, are correctable, and he saw plenty to be confident about in the team's three scoring drives against Arizona. "I'll be telling the guys that our goals are still in front of us," he says. "We would love to win that Number 2 seed. So let's go get it."