The Jaguars are going back to the playoffs and their postseason road is likely to begin with a trip back to Pittsburgh.
"We want to get in there and win. We're not happy to just get in. We want to win," veteran defensive end Paul Spicer said following the Jaguars' ridiculously easy, 49-11 win over the visiting Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
At 11-4, the Jaguars have clinched the number five seed in the AFC playoffs. They are locked in that position with one game remaining, which means it's likely coach Jack Del Rio will rest several starters next Sunday in Houston when the Jaguars close the regular season.
"We'll enjoy Christmas. The big question will be: How much are you going to play guys?" Del Rio told reporters following Sunday's victory.
Translation: Don't expect Fred Taylor or David Garrard to play much, if at all.
Sunday's win was over an inferior Raiders team that used the game to get experience for their rookie quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, the first pick of this year's draft. Russell was in way over his head, finishing the game with three interceptions and a 17.4 passer rating that was at 0.0 for most of the day.
The Raiders were Del Rio's favorite team as a boy growing up in the Bay Area, but there didn't seem to be any warm and fuzzy feelings left over from his youth, as the Jaguars poured it on early and late in coasting to one of the most lopsided wins in team history. The defining moment of the game was an emotional meltdown by defensive tackle Warren Sapp late in the first half, as the Jaguars threatened to score their fifth touchdown of the half.
Sapp was penalized three times for unsportmanlike conduct during a between-plays temper tantrum. Teammate Derrick Burgess was also flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the ball from the Raiders' 35-yard line to the two, from where Garrard mercifully threw an interception. Sapp was ejected from the game.
The Jaguars aren't the only team in the AFC that clinched a playoff berth on Sunday. Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North title by virtue of Cleveland's loss in Cincinnati. As it stands now, Pittsburgh would be the four seed and that would send the Jaguars back to Pittsburgh, where the Jaguars won, 29-22, a week ago.
San Diego would be the number three seed, provided they remain no worse than tied with the Steelers. The Chargers host the Broncos on Monday Night Football, then finish the season at Oakland. Pittsburgh finishes at Baltimore next week.
"They're both outstanding teams," Del Rio said when asked to comment on the likelihood of going back to Pittsburgh. Del Rio declined to concede that Pittsburgh, not San Diego, will be the Jaguars' destination.
"This team is special," the coach said of his own club. "There's a real strong feeling of camaraderie, togetherness."
The Jaguars are playing at arguably the highest level, currently, in the NFL; maybe even higher than the Patriots and Colts. The Jaguars have moved into the top 10 in the league in overall offense and might still do the same on defense, following a game in which they limited the Raiders to 215 yards.
"We have to keep it in perspective. We're only guaranteed one extra game right now," Taylor said.
The four playoff slots in the wild-card round are set for Sat., Jan. 5, at 4:30 p.m. and eight p.m., and Sun., Jan. 6, at one p.m. and 4:30 p.m. The host teams are Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle and Tampa Bay. Given weather and time zone considerations, a Jaguars-Steelers game might be a likely one o'clock Sunday game.
"Guys are hungry. This is a different ball team," Garrard said, comparing this year's Jaguars teams to those of the past. "You know guys are very focused now and their minds are on winning, not on anything else. I think the coaches are doing a great job of keeping us dialed in each week no matter who we're playing."
The Jaguars were a wild-card team two years ago with a 12-4 record. Their first game was in New England and the Jaguars quickly exited the postseason with a 28-3 defeat. Byron Leftwich was the starting quarterback in that game, having been reinstated for that game after missing the final five games of the regular season due to a broken ankle.
"I feel a lot more confident in this team," Taylor said. "The guys who went to New England still have that sour taste in their mouths." There are 24 players remaining on the Jaguars roster from that '05 club.
Wide receiver Ernest Wilford agreed with Taylor that "confidence" is the difference between this team and the one in '05. That team marked the Jaguars' first playoff appearance in Del Rio's term as head coach.
"We can go into any game and be confident," Wilford said. "David (Garrard) is on fire. By the time we get there, we'll be hitting on all cylinders."
You couldn't convince the Raiders the Jaguars weren't hitting on all cylinders on Sunday. Seven different players scored touchdowns. Taylor topped the 100-yard rushing mark for the fifth consecutive game and Maurice Jones-Drew led the Jaguars in receiving with six catches for 96 yards.
How about this? Taylor's 111 yards rushing came on seven carries, which is a 15.9 yards-per-carry average.
This may have been the greatest week of Taylor's career. It certainly was loaded with drama. The week began with Taylor being snubbed for the Pro Bowl again. Two days later, Steelers running back Willie Parker broke his leg and Taylor, as first alternate, was on his way to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. Finally, Taylor toasted the week with Sunday's romp along the riverbank.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Taylor said when asked about his feelings for returning to Pittsburgh. "We want to enjoy this."
"Everybody thought he was getting old but he's looking young again," guard Mo Williams said of Taylor.
Garrard was casually dressed – sport coat, open collar, blue jeans – when he met with reporters following the game. A week ago in Pittsburgh, of course, he did the "American Gangster" thing. Apparently, the win over the Raiders was a ho-hum event, but this season has been anything but ho-hum for Garrard. It's a season that has launched his career into stardom.
"It's a great feeling to be the starting quarterback and also lead your team to the playoffs. I think it's a big feat but it's not me by myself. These guys have played great all year and as long as I don't do anything like put us in bad situations too many times, I know (our defense), our running game and our passing game will give a lot of teams some trouble," Garrard said. "It's been a fun ride and I knew it was bigger the day Jack (Del Rio) told me I was the starter. I knew it was more than just me doing this. I knew it was a higher calling for this team."
Their higher calling will likely begin in Pittsburgh, where a win would likely advance the Jaguars to New England. That would be, for sure, a higher calling.