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David Garrard's play is a big reason why the Jaguars have closed the gap in the AFC South.


AFC South preview:

Colts: Plenty of ammo | Jaguars: Closing the gap | Texans: Seeking playoff berth | Titans: Focus on Young

The Jaguars are still chasing the Colts, but Jacksonville is closing in.

Young quarterback David Garrard will never be mistaken for Peyton Manning but he'll be asked to throw deep more often this year after completing 64 percent of his throws last season and setting a club record with a quarterback rating of 102.2. That number came in large part because of his accuracy -- Garrard threw only 3 interceptions.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci: David Garrard is an elite quarterback and should be able to top his breakout season in 2007. With a strong running game and a solid defense, the Jaguars are going to be a serious contender. Prediction: 11-5

Thomas George: This team is primed to rise. It will take that and more to overtake the Colts and their stronghold on the division. Jacksonville will do it. Prediction: 12-4

Pat Kirwan: The emergence of QB David Garrard changed everything for the Jaguars. They will overcome the decision to trade Marcus Stroud, but can they overcome the Colts for the division title? Prediction: 11-5

Gil Brandt: The Jaguars won 11 games last year with a new starting QB. Now they have David Garrard in his second season as the No. 1, as well as respected defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who should make a difference. Prediction: 11-5

» Jaguars' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: David Garrard
With a full season of starting experience under his belt, Garrard could be on the verge of a breakout season. Last year he had 18 touchdowns compared to just 3 interceptions, and this season he could reach the 3,500-yard passing mark.

Faller: Jerry Porter
Porter missed all of training camp with an injured hamstring. Even if he's ready for Week 1, it could take him a few weeks to gain a positive rapport with Garrard in the offense.

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The problem for Garrard is he lacks even one great wide receiver to help him. Coach Jack Del Rio imported underachievers Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson to try and expand the passing game along with veteran Reggie Williams (38 catches but 10 touchdowns). The hope is Porter's speed and ability to get deep will prevent defenses from putting eight in the box to shut down the Jags' most important offensive element -- its running game. But with Porter still recovering from hamstring surgery and in jeopardy of missing Week 1, that strategy may not be as effective as it once seemed.

Jacksonville scored a club record 411 points a year ago and is looking for more to try and match the Colts' firepower. To do it, Garrard will have to throw more than 18 touchdown passes. The key will remain Jacksonville's physical style on both offense and defense. The Jags averaged nearly 150 yards rushing and no one has the kind of two-pronged running game they have with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combining for nearly 2000 rushing yards (1,970) and 14 touchdowns a year ago. They run behind an offensive line that lists no spectacular player but is a group much stronger than its individual parts.

Defensively they finished 12th in yards allowed primarily because they shut down the run. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is aggressive by nature so he's likely to turn up the heat on the Colts, Texans and Titans.

Jacksonville hopes to do the same with its offense but all summer Garrard was a worry because he seemed to be holding the ball too long. The coaches believe that's the lingering effect of a change to a more quick throwing passing system and that once he is fully comfortable with his receivers, who spent more time this summer in the trainer's room than on the practice field, he and the passing game will be fine. They better hope they're right because there's no margin for error in the AFC South this season.

On the hot seat

Rob Meier is being asked to replace former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who was traded to Buffalo in the offseason to reduce salary. Stroud has anchored one of the stingiest run defenses in football for some time and although injuries limited him the last two years, his are still big shoes to fill.

Difference-maker

Fred Taylor, 32, should be slowing down but he shows no signs of it. Taylor finally made the Pro Bowl last season -- an honor he deserved long ago -- rushing for 1,202 yards and averaging 5.4 yards a carry on 223 rushes. The Jags believe if he gets the carries he'll do the same thing again this season.

Hard road to hoe

The Jags will be challenged from the moment the season begins, opening with a tough five-game stretch that will declare who they are. Jacksonville travels to Tennessee on Sept. 7 to open the season, plays hosts to the Bills, travels to Indy and then plays hosts to Houston and Pittsburgh. That's three playoff teams in the first five weeks of the season. As tests go, it's a stern one.

Jaguars will be better than you think if ...

Young wide receiver John Broussard and Jerry Porter live up to their potential this season. Broussard caught a 47-yard TD bomb in the first game of the season last year but then faded like a pair of jeans. Porter was brought in as a free agent to prevent defenses from massing at the line of scrimmage, but he has to be on the field to have that effect and a hamstring injury has prevented that from happening all summer.

Jaguars will be worse than you think if ...

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gets too aggressive too soon with his plans to eventually switch the Jags from the 4-3 front they've played for years to a 3-4 alignment.

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