Amid the swirl of media and the praise being heaped on the Jaguars this week, David Garrard has remained grounded.
"It's a big game, but we don't need to make it any bigger than it is," Garrard said at the start of a week that will end this Monday night with one of the most important games ever played in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
The 4-1 Jaguars will attempt to end the 10-game winning streak of the 5-0 defending Super Bowl-champion Indianapolis Colts and, in the process, seize early-season control of the AFC South. Any chance the Jaguars have of doing that, of course, relies on another strong performance by Garrard.
"Once we think we've arrived, that's when we'll get smacked in the mouth," Garrard said.
Have the Jaguars arrived? A lot of national media are saying, yes, they have. They point to a four-game winning streak in which Garrard has positioned himself as the league's fourth-rated passer (104.7). They point to a pair of running backs who produced a 375-yard performance in a 44-17 win over the Colts late last season. They point to a rock-ribbed defense that has the Jaguars number two in the league in points per game allowed.
The Colts, of course, are generally regarded to be one half of a two-team upper crust of the league. General perception is that the Colts and Patriots, the only remaining undefeated teams in the league, are headed toward an AFC title game showdown that will, in effect, crown the Super Bowl champion.
Monday night's game will provide an opportunity for the Jaguars to join the Colts and the Patriots as members of the league's elite. Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who usually doesn't assign more importance to one game over another, underscored the significance of this game.
"I think we have to acknowledge that," Del Rio said.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning agrees. "It's a huge AFC South game. Jacksonville is playing as well as anybody in the league right now. We always put more emphasis on division games," Manning said.
The last time these two teams played, the Colts were in a funk. After a nine-game winning streak to start the season, they had lost twice in three weeks as they headed to Jacksonville. Then, the bottom fell out. They were mauled by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew for 375 yards rushing. The national media kissed them goodbye.
"It probably was the most gratifying thing," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of his defense's recovery from that game and its rise in the postseason that triggered the Colts' charge to the Super Bowl title.
"Nobody really panicked and we knew we had a good team and we didn't feel like we had to make major changes. I think that was five years in the making and everybody kind of buying into what we preached," he added.
Logic would suggest the Jaguars won't rush for 375 yards again this Monday night. The Colts are 13th in the league against the run and have continued the improved play on defense they began in the postseason. The Jaguars, however, have the league's fourth-ranked rush-offense and they know that whatever chance they have of upsetting the Colts will rely on an effective running game that will control time of possession and keep the ball out of Manning's hands.
"We knew we could run the ball, but 375 yards worth? That's how you beat the Colts. You keep them off the field," said Garrard, who has led the Jaguars to several long touchdown drives this season.
"I think he calls the right plays at the right times," Garrard said in praising new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has the Jaguars offense at number seven in the league.
"He's playing exceptionally well and I think they've done a great job as a coaching staff of tailoring the offense to do what the running backs do best and what he does best and the combination of the run game and the play-action, and he's throwing the ball accurately and he's not trying to do everything. If you look at his numbers, the important numbers – yards per throw, touchdowns to interceptions and those kinds of things – he's got the same type of stats as all the big-name guys that get all the publicity," Dungy said of Garrard. "He's given them that sense that they can win every game and that's what the good quarterbacks do."
Monday night's game will be the ultimate test for Garrard, against the league's ultimate team and ultimate quarterback. Though Garrard has played at a level just beneath Manning, he has insultingly been referred to as a "game manager." Should he lead the Jaguars to a win against the Colts, he'll give "game manager" a new meaning and respect.