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2 Jacksonville Jaguars
Peter King
September 04, 2006
The "reward" for last year's big success is a tougher schedule, but this team-eager to go deeper in the playoffs-can handle it
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September 04, 2006

2 Jacksonville Jaguars

The "reward" for last year's big success is a tougher schedule, but this team-eager to go deeper in the playoffs-can handle it

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THE BELIEF
A 28-3 loss to the Patriots in a wild-card playoff left Jacksonville unsatisfied, but a more mature Byron Leftwich at quarterback, an intimidating defense and the team's youth-only two starters are older than 31-give the Jaguars a shot at overtaking Indianapolis. "When you come out of nowhere to make the playoffs,'' says Leftwich, "you go into the next season hungry to go further."

THE REALITY
Jacksonville's 2005 schedule was tailor-made for a coming-out party. The Jaguars went 8-1 to finish the regular season, and all those wins came against teams that did not go to the postseason. This year's slate-nondivision foes include Miami, New England, plus the top-to-bottom tough NFC East foursome-will be a better test of Jacksonville's overall strength. But don't forget, the Jaguars boosted their confidence last season with two big victories: a convincing 26-14 home win over the Seahawks in the season opener and a 23-17 overtime road conquest of the Steelers five weeks later, and you know where those two teams ended up.

"I'm sitting down to watch the Super Bowl," Leftwich says, "and I call [running back] 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 Peterson that was like, Look at this! We beat these guys! What we learned last year and take into this year is that we can play with the best."

In camp, Leftwich showed no ill effects from the broken left ankle that caused him to miss five games last season. He needs to improve his accuracy (his completion percentage was 57.9 in 2005), and his four young receivers can help. Most important, one of 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 Wilford and Reggie Williams are pegged as possession receivers, and tight end Marcedes Lewis is only a rookie. That leaves Matt Jones, last year's first-round pick and a converted quarterback, as the likely go-to guy. "He's going to be our X factor, our playmaker," Leftwich says. "After one play last year I asked him, 'Were you open on that one?' He said, 'I don't know.' Matt was learning all year. Now he's going 100 miles an hour."

Where Jacksonville made a big leap in coach Jack Del Rio's first three seasons was on defense, particularly the pass rush. The Jaguars' sack total has risen each year under Del Rio, from 24 in 2003 to 36 in '04 to 47 last year, second best in the league. He employs a sack-by-committee concept, and five front-seven players had at least five sacks in '05. Defensive ends Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer don't get mentioned among the NFL's great pass-rush combos, but they should be. They combined for 16 sacks last year, and though each weighs close to 290 pounds, they're quick enough to get around the more athletic offensive tackles. "When you think of our defense, usually you think of our tackles [ Marcus Stroud and John Henderson]," says Del Rio. "That's about to change."

The coach will get 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 the division by talking about it," says Del Rio. No, you win it by beating the Colts at home on Dec. 10.

2006 SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER

10 DALLAS

18 PITTSBURGH (M)

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