David Garrard couldn't have picked a better time to have the game of his life.
"Finally, yes, I will say it was my best day as a pro quarterback," Garrard told reporters after leading the Jaguars to a 38-20, playoff-clinching win over the Houston Texans.
With 12:15 to play, the Jaguars trailed 20-17 and the game and the season were on the line. Garrard responded magnificently.
He completed passes of 19 and 20 yards to Reggie Williams and Jimmy Smith. Then he ran eight yards for a first down at the Texans 15, from where Fred Taylor carried the ball the remaining distance. The next time the Jaguars had the ball, Garrard sealed the deal by driving the Jaguars 62 yards in six plays and pitching a 36-yard touchdown pass to Ernest Wilford.
In the fourth quarter, Garrard was five of eight for 100 yards and one touchdown. He finished with 292 yards passing and a 100.5 rating, and had what would've been a touchdown pass dropped by Matt Jones.
He leaves his coach, Jack Del Rio, with a decision to make at quarterback. Who will Del Rio install as the team's starting quarterback for the team's opening playoff game? Garrard or Byron Leftwich, who was sidelined on Nov. 27 with a broken left ankle?
The Jaguars will close the regular season on Sunday, Jan. 1, at home against Tennessee. If Leftwich is able to practice this week, it's likely he'll see playing time against the Titans. Then, it'll be decision time for Del Rio, whose team will play in either New England or Cincinnati the following weekend in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
New England is currently the number four team and would host the Jaguars, who are locked in the number five position. If the Patriots win their final two games of the season and the Bengals lose in Kansas City, however, the Bengals would fall to fourth and the Patriots would go up to the third position. That would send the Jaguars to Cincinnati.
San Diego was eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday. Pittsburgh will claim the final wild-card spot with a win over Detroit or a Kansas City loss next weekend. Kansas City will win the sixth spot with a win over Cincinnati and a loss by Pittsburgh.
"You're talking about the defending Super Bowl champions; a great quarterback, a great coach and since Tedy (Bruschi) has returned their defense has returned to form. That's a monumental challenge," Del Rio said when asked about playing at New England.
"Hopefully, the people back in Jacksonville are pretty happy about that Christmas present we just gave them," Del
Rio said. The Jaguars returned to Jacksonville 11-4 and with the franchise's first playoff berth since 1999.
"Another gutty performance. The Texans have always played us hard. They have some talented skill people. We persevered and gathered ourselves at halftime," Del Rio added.
Houston quarterback David Carr threw for 295 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 100.7 passer rating. The Jaguars were torched for touchdown passes of 50 yards to Corey Bradford in the first half and 53 yards to Andre Johnson early in the fourth quarter. It was Johnson's touchdown that left the Jaguars trailing by three and facing crunch time.
After a discouraging 10-9 win over lowly San Francisco the previous week, the Jaguars offense turned in a stellar performance against Houston. The return to form of running back Fred Taylor may have been the most significant fact.
Taylor rushed for 101 yards on 22 carries, as Greg Jones was sidelined by last week's neck injury. It was Taylor's best performance since midseason and he was especially powerful in runs of 18 and 14 yards in the Jags' third-quarter touchdown drive, and on the 15-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
"Am I back?" Taylor said. "Being a running back, sometimes you gotta get the luck of the hole. I had better running lanes. I didn't think as much as I did the last couple of weeks. I wasn't overthinking.
"I'm the same, old Fred," Taylor added.
Del Rio gave the entire team, players and coaches, Christmas off and he was clearly in a reflective and merry mood in his postgame address.
"We've built it from three years," he said of his team. "They don't give a young coach a team chock-full of talent."
Winning a playoff berth was a goal Del Rio announced on draft day last spring, when he told reporters it was time for the Jaguars to "go to the next level."