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Garrard could take league lead

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It was a "Hail Mary" play by the Cleveland Browns in 2002 that ruined the Jaguars' season and may have cost coach Tom Coughlin his job. Eight years later, Mike Thomas' "Hail Mary" touchdown catch on the final play of Sunday's win over the Houston Texans has Jacksonville giddy about its Jaguars and considering the possibility that fate is on the Jaguars' side.

Did it save the Jaguars' season? Yeah, it did, but only if the Jaguars find a way to navigate through a rugged finishing schedule that'll see them play all three of their division opponents on the road. It'll take more than fate to save the Jaguars' season. It'll take a lot more of what they're getting from quarterback David Garrard and the offense.

It's Garrard and the offense that's driving the Jaguars' express at midseason. The Jaguars offense piled up 491 yards against the Texans and another stellar performance by Garrard has him second in the league in passer rating, 104.9 to Michael Vick's 105.3. Vick and the Eagles play tonight, so the possibility exists that Garrard will wake up on Tuesday morning as the NFL's top-rated passer.

Imagine that. Isn't Garrard the quarterback Jaguars fans want to replace? Might Garrard be the most underappreciated quarterback in the league?

"I don't think he's unappreciated today," coach Jack Del Rio said. "The last two ballgames, he's been sharp and we need him to be sharp this weekend."

Garrard completed his final 14 passes on Sunday. His last pass, of course, was more about luck than precision.

"When David plays like that, then we can be difficult to stop. As the leader of our offense, we count on him to play at a high level," Del Rio said.

He's currently playing at the highest level of his career. In the Jaguars' five wins, Garrard has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just one interception. He's just five touchdown passes shy of tying a team record.

All of this raises the question: Is Garrard in the process of taking his game to an elite level?

He was challenged by Del Rio and team owner Wayne Weaver last winter to play at a higher level. Garrard responded by dedicating himself to a stronger work ethic. Nine games into the season, all indications are Garrard has stepped up a class in performance.

Del Rio would make no such pronouncements at his Monday press conference, but it was obvious the coach likes the way his quarterback is playing and Del Rio continues to set the bar high.

"It hinges on quarterback play," Del Rio said when asked if this year's offense might be the best he's had in his eight years as the team's head coach. "I think we're a little better at the skilled positions, probably a little more athletic up front. We have a better supporting cast of players. Marcedes (Lewis) has become a real force at (tight end). It all hinges on how we play up front and how the quarterback orchestrates the whole thing."

Garrard is orchestrating just fine these days. Will he continue to play at this high level? The answer to that question will determine whether or not he has, in fact, stepped up to a higher level of performance.

Defensively, the Jaguars continue to be a work in progress, to use Del Rio's phraseology. The defense played well in the first half on Sunday, but then faded in the face of three 80-yard touchdown drives by the Texans in the second half.

"In the second half, it was mistakes we can't have. In the second half, there wasn't much rush and the coverage wasn't where it needed to be," Del Rio said.

Cornerback Rashean Mathis is drawing criticism for his play and Del Rio confirmed that it wasn't up to par.

"It wasn't one of his better days. We're going to need him to play at a higher level. Our defensive ends didn't play very well," Del Rio said.

The burden is on Garrard and the offense to carry the Jaguars until the defense is capable of performing better.

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