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IN THE eight months since their 2005 season ended, the Jacksonville Jaguars had reason to believe they might finally be ready to overtake the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. Indy lost All-Pro tailback Edgerrin James to Arizona, while Jacksonville's already stingy defense was bolstered by the signing of cornerback Brian Williams and the return of safety Donovin Darius, who'd missed 14 games last season with a torn ACL. The Jaguars opened the 2006 season by beating the highly touted Cowboys 24--17 and bullying the Super Bowl champion Steelers 9--0 (holding Pittsburgh to 26 yards rushing, the lowest in coach Bill Cowher's 15-season tenure). That one-two punch showed that Jacksonville might be the AFC South's new power and a Super Bowl contender.
But for the Jaguars, no game is as defining as the one against division-rival Indianapolis, and after a 21--14 loss to the Colts on Sunday, they're still looking up at Indianapolis, the dominant force in the AFC South, if not the conference. "When the game is over and we have a W, then we're getting closer [to the Colts]," Jacksonville safety Deon Grant said after the game. "We don't believe in playing them close. As long as we don't get that W, they're running things in our division."
It's a maddening reality for Jacksonville, which has won 10 straight regular-season games against teams not named the Colts. They've done it with a stifling defense that, playing in a small market without a superstar, has been largely anonymous. Anchored by Pro Bowl tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the Jaguars turned Indy's attempted jaunts up the middle into the equivalent of an escape attempt from Alcatraz; James's hapless replacements, Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, combined for 63 yards on 17 carries. And Peyton Manning often looked discombobulated as he completed 14 of 31 for 219 yards.
Yet the Colts found new ways to torment their rivals. Early in the second quarter Terrence Wilkins returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at seven, and with 8:35 left Manning adroitly faked a handoff to Addai before scampering to his right, untouched, two yards into the end zone for a 21--7 lead, all but sealing the victory. It was Manning's first rushing touchdown since 2002.
Asked what the Colts got out of the win, Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney said, "Separation." His remark shows just how aware the Colts are that Jacksonville is nipping at their heels. Indy's last loss within the division came on Oct. 24, 2004--to the Jaguars. And close outcomes against Jacksonville have become old news for the Colts. Indianapolis has won four of its last five against the Jaguars, but the average margin in those five games is a touchdown. "Typical Colts-Jaguars game," said Manning after Indy's win on Sunday.
Now the Jaguars must wait until Dec. 10--when Indianapolis visits Alltel Stadium--for another crack at the Colts. "They still have a lot of football, and we still have a lot of football," said Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich on Sunday. "You can't win or lose the Super Bowl in Week 3."
But you can get a rough reminder of who still runs the AFC South.