A year ago, the Jaguars were coasting to a playoff berth. This year's team finds itself 7-5 and tied with four other teams in the AFC wild-card race, but the Jaguars would seem to be at a high point in Jack Del Rio's four years as head coach.
The NFL rankings say the Jaguars have the league's third-best running game and fourth-best defense (fifth against the run and eighth against the pass). The Jaguars also have one of the league's hottest passers, quarterback David Garrard, whose 86.2 passer rating would be 12th in the league if Garrard had enough pass attempts to qualify. Garrard's 149 pass attempts are 19 fewer than needed to appear in the league passer rankings.
Garrard made his sixth start of the season on Sunday in Miami, which means he's been the starting quarterback in exactly half of the team's games. He is coming off consecutive two-touchdown-passes games in which he has produced passer ratings of 118.0 and 136.4 respectively. Garrard is, frankly, the AFC equivalent of Dallas' Tony Romo.
"I'm having fun watching the Cowboys and Tony Romo," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said at Monday's press conference.
Garrard was at his all-time best in Miami. He passed, ran and directed the Jaguars offense with veteran aplomb. The fifth-year quarterback, a career backup until the seventh game of this season, is playing at a level that is drawing national attention.
"We saw some ability to throw the ball," Del Rio said of Garrard's performance in the Jaguars' 24-10 win over the Dolphins. "I think you have to have an explosive element to your football team."
The Jaguars rushed for 150 yards or more for the seventh time this season. They have two hot running backs, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who have helped produced the league's third-best rushing yards per game average. Garrard, of course, has also helped that cause, as evidenced by his 177 yards rushing this season. Taylor is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, Jones-Drew is averaging 5.3 and Garrard is at 5.2.
"I see talent," Del Rio said of Garrard. "I see real solid character. He has handled himself beautifully … knowing he's in a tough spot. To work the way he did through that (backup) process prepared him for the opportunity he's making the most of. I like the fact he's more concerned about winning football games than he is about his personal stats and accomplishments."
Del Rio is emphasizing the importance of pursuing team goals and Garrard has become a player who is championing his coach's cause. Garrard is making the most of an opportunity, at the same time Del Rio is selling opportunity to his players.
"If I've ever had the blinders on, they're not coming off this week," said Del Rio, who has focused his team sharply on the old "one game at a time" coachspeak.
"It's not time to have a look back or a look forward. I'm just not in a reflective mood," Del Rio said. "We have fought our way through a tremendous amount of adversity in this season. We have a tremendous challenge in front of us. I'm proud of the way our team has fought. I recognize all that we've done, but I recognize all we have to do."
Looking ahead merges with the one game at a time philosophy this week, for Sunday's opponent is the Indianapolis Colts. It's a must-win game. It's a statement game. It's any kind of game you want it to be.
The Jaguars were facing the same opponent in the same week a year ago. The Colts were 12-0 en route to Jacksonville. The Jaguars were 9-3 and hoping to extend the division title race. The Colts, of course, won easily and celebrated their division title on the Jaguars' turf.
Are the Jaguars better prepared for this game than they were a year ago?
"I think it'll be a good barometer for our team to play the Colts," Del Rio agreed.
Garrard was the starter in this game last year, but he was a backup quarterback in a caretaker role. Now, he's "The Man" and he's playing at a man-like level.
"We're going to find out Sunday if we're any more prepared to play the Colts," Del Rio said.