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It's not a great idea to ask the Jaguars why they play the league's best team, the Colts, so tough. Inquire as to why Jacksonville and Indianapolis split their last four meetings or why the Colts have outscored the Jags by a measly total of six points in those games, and you're likely to get the kind of answer defensive end Reggie Hayward spat out after a 24-17 win at Arizona on Sunday. "Screw the Colts," Hayward said. "Put that in your magazine. The reason we play them good is because we're good."
No argument there. With the win over the Cardinals, the Jaguars (8-3, second to Indy in the AFC North) put themselves in good position for a playoff spot. In fact, with a schedule that has three opponents who are a combined 6-27 and only one (the Colts) with a record better than .500, the loss of quarterback Byron Leftwich for a month with a broken left ankle doesn't seem so devastating to the offense. The Chiefs and the Chargers, two teams that are a game behind Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card race, have significantly tougher schedules down the stretch. So the notion of inexperienced backup David Garrard steering this ship into the playoffs isn't a reach.
Nevertheless, the Jags want you to believe that without Leftwich they're sunk. They want to stay under the radar. "He's our star," says coach Jack Del Rio. "The last month or so he'd found a great rhythm. It's going to be really tough without him."
But if this is truly a four-week injury--that was Del Rio's best guess on Monday-- Leftwich would make it back for the final regular-season game, against Tennessee at home. If Garrard can hold the fort until then, Jacksonville will be a stubborn out in January. This is an opportunistic team with a plus-12 turnover margin through 11 games. The Jaguars have found alternatives to oft-injured running back Fred Taylor and ageless wideout Jimmy Smith: Second-year back Greg Jones has been rugged and steady spelling Taylor, while second-year wideout Ernest Wilford and rookie receiver Matt Jones have combined for nine touchdown catches. Despite making only three starts in four NFL seasons, Garrard was impressive on Sunday, looking especially poised in letting his blocks develop on six runs for a total of 61 yards.
Jacksonville's defense, which ranks third in the league, is as physical and chippy as an old Buddy Ryan--coached unit. Tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, former first-round picks, crash the offensive line with 640 pounds of up-the-middle bulk, allowing playmaking middle linebacker Mike Peterson, one of the league's top tacklers, to mop up. There's no premier pass-rushing threat, but the quick Hayward and the stouter Paul Spicer (12 sacks combined) are adequate. Rashean Mathis, a smooth cover corner (four interceptions), is a rising star who should earn a Pro Bowl nod. "We're good enough to make some noise in January--how much I don't know," says Smith, 36. "But we've proven to ourselves, week to week, that we belong with the best teams in the league."
The Jaguars' depth made the difference against the Cardinals. Garrard ran for a touchdown, didn't throw an interception and managed the game well. Rookie Derrick Wimbush, a free-agent pickup, returned a kickoff 91 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. And backup defensive tackle Rob Meier contributed his fourth sack in as many games, plus a late fumble recovery that sealed the win.
David Garrard Derrick Wimbush, Rob Meier ... unknown players but postseason players, most likely. "That's us," Garrard says. "No-names, backups, whatever. Nobody showing us any love. That's O.K. Playing well is enough for us."
GREEN BAY QBS
Last year, in the midst of a lost season, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells decided not to play bonus-baby quarterback Drew Henson much, though Parcells knew there was no future in rickety veteran Vinny Testaverde. Why not give the kid a shot in two or three of the final, meaningless games? "Because," Parcells said, "I never coached a meaningless game." Green Bay coach Mike Sherman echoed that sentiment last week in explaining why he plans to continue to start 36-year-old Brett Favre instead of 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers. "You play to win every game," Sherman said, "regardless of your record."