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Bryant is game's hero


The Jaguars faithful, which includes Wayne Weaver and Tom Coughlin, may now pump their fists and proclaim, "I told you so." Yes, a 3-1 start and today's measuring-stick win over the Philadelphia Eagles qualifies those who clung to blind faith that this Jaguars team would be a playoff contender this year may, now, certainly point and laugh at the nay-sayers. But, first, you must answer this question: How does a defense lose six starters and improve?

It is the question of the ages. A little too dramatic? All right, it's the question of the year … at least.

This football team lost three of its starting four defensive linemen, waived goodbye to two of its starting three linebackers and parted company with its highest-paid cornerback during the offseason. Then Tom Coughlin replaced those players with two young first-round draft picks, an aging veteran, a grab-bag of linebackers and a cornerback who is the prize of the Jaguars' player development program.

Do all of that and what do you get? A defense that lifted this team to its biggest win since some time before the Titans did that awful thing for the third time in the 1999 season. Yeah, it sure helps to have Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor on the offensive side of the ball, but the bottom line is this: The Jaguars won Sunday because of their defense.

This collection of hold-overs, draft choices and recycled veterans is playing as impressively as any defense the Jaguars have ever trotted onto the field. Yes, that includes the 1999 bunch that held the top ranking in the league for 10 weeks and was on pace to set a record for fewest points allowed in a season. The bad thing about that defense was that it collapsed at crunch time. It was great on paper, but folded like a diaper in the big games.

Not this bunch; at least not today. Wow, did they play! And begin with cornerback Fernando Bryant, one of the most harshly-criticized hold-overs from the previous two seasons. Bryant, who suffered through the worst year of his football life last season, was simply sensational against the Eagles. He led the Jaguars with seven tackles. The Eagles came right at him and he never flinched.

A reporter looked him in the eye and asked him if he had ever played a better game.

"Probably not," Bryant said, his chin pushed out. "They asked me to take care of my side of the field and make them beat us somewhere else. Eighty percent of Donovan's (McNabb) passes come to the left side. We knew that coming in," Bryant said.

He was the difference in the game. Bryant was the Jaguars' number one star because the Eagles' offensive design could've made him the game's goat. Compared to Bryant, the Jaguars' other cornerback, Jason Craft, had the day off.

Nobody was more important to the execution of the Jaguars' defensive strategy than Bryant. And when he left the game with what appeared to be a major ankle injury in the third quarter, that strategy became vulnerable. The Eagles went to work on Bryant's replacement, Kiwaukee Thomas, and they drove to a field goal.

"I felt it for awhile but I knew I was coming back in," Bryant said of the injury, which caused him to be helped from the field by a trainer under each of Bryant's arms. On the Eagles' next possession, Bryant was back on the field.

As much as it was a grand day for the Jaguars and those who believed the team would rally from consecutive losing seasons, this was also a day of atonement for Bryant, whose career had fallen on hard times the previous two seasons and who had become a target of fan discontent. Today, he should be their hero.

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