The Jaguars are 2-0 for the first time in three years, alone in first place for the first time since 1999, and headed for back-to-back showdown games against Tennessee and Indianapolis. All of a sudden, football has become real exciting in Jacksonville.
"We're keeping the cardiologists busy in town," head coach Jack Del Rio dead-panned following the Jaguars' heart-stopping, 7-6 win over the visiting Denver Broncos on Sunday.
The win marked the second consecutive week the Jaguars had snatched victory at a time when their opponents were preparing to celebrate. In Buffalo, the Jaguars drove the ball 80 yards in the final 2:07 of the game, converting two fourth-down plays and scoring on the final play of the game. In beating Denver, the Jaguars were the fortunate recipients of a Quentin Griffin fumble as Griffin was moving the ball into the center of the field for a potential game-winning field goal.
Denver had it all going their way with 37 seconds to play. They were at the Jaguars' 24-yard line, downwind and with one of the game's best clutch kickers, Jason Elam. The Jaguars were in a hopeless state, until quarterback Jake Plummer and Griffin mishandled the exchange. Griffin's fumble was unforced and recovered by Akin Ayodele.
"Amazingly, something as simple as a hand-off was the difference in the game. The Jaguars committed no turnovers; the Broncos committed one. The Jaguars won.
"I said a prayer of thanks. That's exactly what I did," Del Rio said.
His Jaguars got lucky, again. It didn't seem to bother him.
"I feel the good Lord has been good to us. Certainly, these last two games could have gone either way, but we played well enough to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of the situation. But, yes, I do think we have been fortunate," Del Rio said.
All right, here's how it happened.
• The Jaguars' lone score occurred early in the second quarter. Jermaine Lewis returned a punt 50 yards to the Denver 32-yard line. Fred Taylor punched out 15 yards on two carries, then, on third-and-10 from the Denver 12, quarterback Byron Leftwich completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Ernest Wilford that gave the Jaguars a 7-0 lead. The Jaguars have scored two touchdowns this season, both of which occurred on passes from Leftwich to Wilford.
• Denver got field goals of 44 and 22 yards from Elam in the second quarter, and a 51-yard attempt by Elam in the third quarter fell just short. It was into the wind.
There was no scoring in the second half, but that's not to say there wasn't a lot of excitement. There was plenty of raw chills, one of which was supplied by Jaguars defensive end Lionel Barnes, who was flagged for roughing the passer on a third-down incompletion in the Broncos' final drive.
Barnes was playing because of another chilling moment. Defensive end Paul Spicer suffered a fractured right leg when he was blocked low by offensive tackle Matt Lepsis as Spicer was being blocked high by running back Reuben Droughns. The injury is of particular note because the Broncos' are renowned for their cut-blocking tactics.
"He got the game ball," Del Rio said of Spicer. "Paul Spicer represents what we're all about around here. He plays hard, he plays tough. We will miss him."
Del Rio said he would not offer comment on the play until he reviewed the game tape.
"We wanted to get back out there and not get into a jaw-jacking thing but play well and get a win for Paul," defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said. "We all won this game together."
Spicer's injury clearly affected his teammates. They knelt with their heads bowed as the Jaguars training team raced onto the field. There was no doubt from the beginning that Spicer's leg had broken. Spicer waved to the crowd as he was carted from the field.
The Jaguars played with renewed vigor when play resumed, but it was a defense that had also been on the field for all but 11 minutes of the second half. It was wearing down in the face of Denver's relentless assault, which produced 356 yards and 20 first downs. It needed help. Griffin provided it.
"We're winning ugly games right now because we're not scoring a lot of points," Leftwich said, "but last year we were losing a lot of ugly football games and no one called us unlucky then, they just said we were a bad team. I think you make your own luck."
Well, that might be debatable, but this much isn't open to argument: After a slow start, the Jaguars stopped the Broncos' vaunted running game and forced the visitors to pass.
Denver rushed for 53 yards in the first quarter, but finished with only 106 yards. Griffin, who ran for 156 yards against the Chiefs in week one, gained only 66 against the Jaguars.
"They play a lot of zone coverage and don't give up big plays. They are very strong up front so you have to earn everything you get," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said of the Jaguars.
The Jaguars announced a paid attendance of 69,127, which marked the biggest crowd at Alltel Stadium since the Jan. 23, 2000, AFC title game. It must be noted, however, the Jaguars went to a new formula for gauging attendance for this game. Previously, they had only announced the actual attendance. Beginning with this game, they will announce the number of tickets distributed. The game, of course, was blacked out to local television.
"For me, personally, they played a big part," Stroud said of the fans. "It's almost as though you can feel them coming through you, and they definitely rattled those guys. Their offensive linemen didn't know what was going on. I don't think their center could hear the quarterback's cadence. They did a great job."
Del Rio credited the win to his team's ability to get a lead.
"It's has been well-documented that over the past 10 years they have been one of the most explosive teams in the NFL coming out of the blocks. It was a huge thing for us not to let that happen. I'm proud we were able to hold off their early charge and not allow them to jump on top of us," Del Rio said.
They'll try to do the same in Tennessee next Sunday, and it sure wouldn't hurt if luck stayed on the Jaguars' side one more week.