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Year removed from collapse, Jags on cusp of division title

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Stephen Morton / Associated Press
David Garrard's fourth-quarter heroics are a big reason why the Jags are in position to clinch the AFC South.


A year ago at this time, a young Jaguars team knew it needed to win two of its final four games to reach the postseason. That was their sole focus, and a mathematical reality openly discussed in the locker room.

Few expected Jacksonville to be on such a December perch, and looking back, that big-picture purview ultimately cost the inexperienced outfit.

"We definitely took a mindset at the time, of, 'Win two and we're in,'" running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "And we didn't get it done. We didn't win any more games."

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So when the Jags (8-5) found themselves back in essentially the same situation this December -- this time even leading the Colts in the AFC South -- obviously a new message was in order. This time around, coach Jack Del Rio and his players are thinking and talking only about the next game, and the next play. Tiebreakers and playoff algebra need not apply.

"Now the mindset is one game at a time," Jones-Drew said."That's the only thing that matters."

This Sunday's game at Indianapolis is particularly meaningful. A Jags victory would give them a season sweep of the Colts and clinch the AFC South title, their first since 1999 when they won the old AFC Central at 14-2.

With the Titans and Texans considered preseason upstarts, a home playoff game in Jacksonville seemed fairly improbable during training camp, but the Jags have combined a superior run game with amazing fourth-quarter theatrics from quarterback David Garrard and a rebuilt defense that includes one of the most underrated front-seven groups in the NFL.

This team still shares some similarities with the 2009 Jags -- still young, still without too many signature wins, still reliant on Jones-Drew. But this time around, I'm a believer. This is a playoff team.

Last week's comeback victory over an equally-desperate Raiders team was vital and followed the script of the season with a mad scramble to rally and a host of huge plays in critical situations. There is something about this team, and while the "cardiac Jets" had been getting all of the attention for finding ways to win, it's the Jags who may truly deserve the distinction.

Give full marks to general manager Gene Smith for the rapid turnaround. He is the perfect fit for this team, wedded to the draft and reasonable free-agent signings for this small-market team. His low profile is in keeping with the organization's overall low-key philosophy. It's about football here, minus the bluster and bombast and star cultures that can infest other franchises.

In fact, the most you heard about Smith was following the draft, when criticism poured in for selecting defensive lineman Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick. The choice was a reach, some said, despite the fact other teams picking in the teens had Alualu rated very high, and he was a late-riser on many draft boards. Taking a grunt from Cal wasn't very sexy. How could Smith pass on a potential skill-position star? Why not trade down and try to take him lower?

Turns out Smith knew what he was doing all along. Alualu is a perfect complement to Terrance Knighton -- who should be considered an emerging star -- on the interior of that defense.

"Alualu is a true 3-technique who has been a disruptive force inside," according to one talent evaluator who has watched him closely, "and he's someone who can create pass rush in one-on-one situations."

Perry Knotts / Associated Press
Last year, the Jaguars were 7-5 and needed just two wins in their final four games to clinch a playoff berth, but lost all four. MJD says this year is different.
Jags' final four games 2009 vs. 2010
Week 2009 2010
14 vs. MIA, 14-10 L vs. OAK, 38-31 W
15 vs. IND, 35-31 L at IND, TBD
16 at NE, 35-7 L vs. WAS TBD
17 at CLE, 23-17 L at HOU, TBD

The Jags know a little something about building game-changing pillars on the inside, with that Marcus Stroud/John Henderson combination so good for so long.

Knighton, a third-round pick out of Temple in 2009, is up there with Haloti Ngata in terms of the best defensive tackles in football this season. You'd have a hard time finding a scout to say otherwise. End Jeremy Mincey has come on in the second half of the season as well (replacing draft bust Derrick Harvey) with four sacks in his last four games. Even despite losing the line's anchor, end Aaron Kampman -- who turned out to be a sage free-agent splurge -- to a season-ending injury, the defensive front has remained strong.

The Jags are built to try to beat you up on both sides of the ball with no secrets, bare-knuckle football.

"We've got to run the ball, and we have to stuff the run," said Jones-Drew, possibly the only Jags player known by the casual football fan. "It's a lot of extra effort, guys coming together to do the little things to keep us going. There's really no big-name guys here. We just go out and play."

The run game was sluggish early on, however. It lacked chemistry and the long gallops that have become the Pro Bowler's hallmark were missing. Jones-Drew was nursing some injuries into the season -- "I was definitely a little banged up," he said -- but in the second half of the season he has probably been the most impactful runner in the NFL.

Jones-Drew credits sorting out the offensive line and finally being able to get their five best linemen on the field together. Left guard Vince Manuwai's return from injury was a massive boost ("He's been dominant as an in-line run blocker," the talent evaluator said of the former third-round pick), and left tackle Eugene Monroe (eighth overall pick of 2009) has solidified that all-important side of the line.

"We tweaked the run game some from last year and that took a little time to get used to," Jones-Drew said."We had some guys banged up, and it wasn't the same starting five (linemen) every week. But it really started to click in Dallas, and we've been able to keep that going."

The Jags entered that Week 8 game with the Cowboys at 3-4, coming off consecutive lopsided losses to the Chiefs and Titans. Players believed their 35-17 blowout victory in Dallas was the turning point. Jones-Drew said players became more vocal in the locker room.

"Guys starting speaking up," said Jones-Drew, whose poignant halftime remarks last Sunday to teammates were credited with sparking the comeback victory over Oakland. And Del Rio made the point to the team that anyone who wanted to start pointing the finger had better first do some thorough self evaluation of his own performance.

"I've got a great group here," Del Rio said when asked about pulling out of the 3-4 hole. "These guys were willing to work hard."

Tight end Marcedes Lewis, along with Jones-Drew, should be heading to the Pro Bowl. "He's been outstanding as a run blocker and pass catcher," the talent evaluator said.

Lewis, who has become Garrard's safety valve on third downs, is tied for the NFL lead for touchdown catches by a tight end, and he provided the first flash of a downfield attack Sunday against the Raiders in what had been a screen-fest to that point. Jones-Drew, meantime, leads the NFL in carries (284), has a healthy average of 4.5 yards per carry, ranks second in the league with 98.3 yards per game, is second with 73 rushing first downs, and is fourth with 33 runs of 10 yards or longer, hence some of the MVP rumblings.

Garrard still lacks polish at times, he's streaky and tends to start slowly, but boy can he close games, and he ranks seventh in the NFL in completion percentage (65.5). Only Ben Roethlisberger has been better in the fourth quarter (Garrard has six touchdowns to one interception in the fourth quarter this season with a sterling 119 rating). He made game-changing plays to help key wild wins over Cleveland, Oakland, Houston, and Indianapolis.

Mike Thomas has emerged as quality sidekick to receiver Mike Sims-Walker, and over the last few weeks running back Rashad Jennings and receiver Jason Hill have delivered explosive plays. The run game is so stout that even a flash here or there in the vertical game is enough, and the Jags have that element (Tip your hat to Smith for claiming Hill off waivers from the 49ers in November, as well. The Jags loved his speed coming out of college in 2007, when he had the second-fastest time in the combine, and they expect the deep threat to have an increasing role down the stretch).

It's all made for positively good times in Jacksonville. Used to be, December talk centered on blackouts, Del Rio's job security and the possibility this franchise might relocate at some point, but not this year.

This market will always have challenges in terms of major corporate support given its locale, but attendance is up.

People always mention us with blackouts," one team official said, "but that hasn't been a problem here this year, and it has been for some other teams. We've needed a few extensions, but we've sold out."

Pro Bowl voting

The Pro Bowl ballots are open, so vote for your favorite players to earn a spot in the Jan. 30, 2011, event in Honolulu's Aloha Stadium.

Players have noticed the difference.

"Before you would go out to dinner and you wouldn't really get recognized," said Jones-Drew, who has been with the team since 2006. "Now, guys are eating for free every now and then. It's a little thing but it means a lot to get that kind of support in the community."

And while players have heard rumors of possibly moving to Los Angeles one day, or occasion speculation about clandestine meetings, much like playoff tiebreakers, it's not anything they spend much time on.

"We've heard the rumors about L.A. and Magic Johnson, but as players you learn to focus on what you can control," said Jones-Drew, a Bay Area native who played at UCLA. "We love playing here. Jacksonville is a great city to raise a family, there are a lot of opportunities here, and the city is growing fast."

Jacksonville just might turn out to be a great city to win a playoff game in too, come January. A win over the Colts, and they'll host a postseason game. A loss, and they're still in the thick of things. It's essentially the same scenario as a year ago -- win two of the last four to get in -- only this time they're already halfway there, and they're a little older, a little wiser, and a lot better.

Numbers tell story of Jets decline

A year ago the Jets were a 9-7 team. They made great strides under then-rookie coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum, but somewhere along the way acquired a public persona as a Super Bowl favorite for 2010.

Beware of the hype.

That 9-7 team from a year ago -- while flawed -- was superior to this year's model in several major categories, which explains my skepticism about version 2010. Here's how the 2009 Jets compare to the 2010 Jets in statistics central to their identity -- scoring defense, yards per rush and QB rating. Check it out, and you tell me if New York's current record might seem a little inflated.

The Jets have to be a ball-control team. They are averaging 4.38 yards per carry this season (10th overall). Last year they averaged 4.54 a carry (fifth overall). The Jets are constructed based on their defense. They have allowed 242 offensive points (12th fewest in the NFL) through 13 games (18.6 per game); they allowed 187 offensive points all of last season (11.7 per game), by far tops in the NFL (49 fewer points than Dallas, which was next best).

So the defense has slipped a touchdown per game and the all-important rushing attack is down almost a quarter-yard per attempt. They have to blitz more now to generate a pass rush, and while Mark Sanchez has made some strides, the passing game has not really grown. Sanchez has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than a year ago and cut down on his interceptions significantly (from 20 to 12). But he is actually less accurate (53.8 percent as a rookie; 53.3 percent in 2010), and is averaging fewer yards per attempt (6.7 as a rookie to 6.5 in 2010).

And the run game has slowed considerably. Over the past six games the Jets are averaging 3.87 yards per carry, with three rushing TDs. Through their first seven games the Jets averaged a whopping 4.84 per carry with six rushing TDs.

You could build a case this team is in danger of losing its season. Consecutive humbling defeats can rattle a collective psyche. Sanchez is in a pretty deep funk. The offense is in a hole. Going to Heinz Field, then Soldier Field would be trying for any team, much less this team at this time. And finishing the year against Buffalo is no gimme, either.

The Bills could turn that into a bit of a shootout, and the Jets might not be able to keep pace. Having to face a much-improved division foe, with literally everything on the line, in front of a pensive home crowd is nothing to take lightly, but it could be exactly where the Jets find themselves come Jan. 2.

Quick hits

» Each painful loss makes it more likely the Houston Texans begin searching for their third coach in franchise history this offseason. If that is the case, Bill Cowher would be my favorite today to get that job, with Gary Kubiak then getting strong consideration from the Broncos. I could also see Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson getting strong consideration in Cincinnati, to say nothing of Oakland should the Raiders falter and Al Davis make a move.

» Bigger issue for the Broncos might ultimately be their front office. If I'm Denver, I'm taking a long look at Bill Kuharich, who ran personnel in Kansas City under Carl Peterson, for a role of some sort in that department. Kuharic deserves a lot of credit for the young talent left over in Kansas City (think Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers, Dwayne Bowe, Derrick Johnson). He knows the division well from his years there and has the kind of experience and institutional knowledge some younger front offices are missing.

» Is it just me, or does Brian Cushing not look the same this season? He doesn't seem to be at his Rookie of the Year level from a year ago. He's going to have to return to form next season for whomever is coaching the Texans if that defense is ever going to get really turned around.

» From what I'm hearing, there won't be any decision on Albert Haynesworth's appeal of his four-game suspension until after the season. If there was an expedited hearing going on, we would have heard a date by now. Haynesworth will report on Jan. 3 for his exit physical, likely his last appearance ever at Redskins Park, and we'll find out in 2011 whether he gets to keep those final four game checks (roughly $850,000) or if it stays with the Redskins.

The picks are in

I went a strong 12-4 with the picks last week, to move to 133-75 for the season. This week, give me the Chargers, Rams, Bills, Browns, Jags, Texans, Cowboys, Eagles, Panthers, Bucs, Saints, Falcons, Steelers, Raiders, Packers, and Bears.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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