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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.