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
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.