NASHVILLE—One showdown down, one to go.
The Jaguars' exhilarating 15-12 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday left them at 3-0, alone in first place and headed for a showdown with the 2-1 Indianapolis Colts this Sunday at Alltel Stadium. A win over the Colts would complete an early-season changing of the guard in the AFC South.
"Huge win; I'm proud of our guys fighting the whole 60 minutes. We'll enjoy this ride home then we'll get back to work," coach Jack Del Rio said following the win, the Jaguars' first ever at The Coliseum.
Yes, it is a huge win. It halted the Titans' winning streak against the Jaguars at five games. It dropped the Titans to 1-2 – they've lost two consecutive division games at home – and sends them into a four-game stretch of schedule in which they will play on the road three times.
Are the Titans in danger of falling from the ranks of the NFL's elite? Some would point to their depleted roster and bulky salary cap and answer, yes.
The Jaguars are the new kid on the block. It is a young team on the rise. It is an upstart contender attempting to forge ahead of the Titans and Colts, who dominated the AFC South in its first two years.
Oh, by the way, the Jaguars' ride home was delayed a day by Hurricane Jeanne. The team remained in Nashville Sunday night.
"It's a young team but they play hard. I think you saw we have some talent," Del Rio told reporters following Sunday's win.
Until late in the third quarter, however, it appeared the Jaguars lacked talent on offense. With 7:01 to play in the third quarter, the Jaguars had accumulated a mere 77 yards of offense. Quarterback Byron Leftwich was an abysmal six of nine for 39 yards, and star running back Fred Taylor had rushed for just 19 yards in eight tries. The Titans led, 6-0, and there was nothing to suggest the Jaguars would even move into field goal range.
Then, all of a sudden, the offense came to life. Leftwich completed a pass to Jimmy Smith for 18 yards. Taylor gained nine yards around right end, then 25. LaBrandon Toefield gashed the Titans for 15 and three plays later Leftwich completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end George Wrighster.
What happened? Where was that drive for three-and-a-half quarters?
"I wish I knew. If I knew, we'd be doing it in the first quarter," Leftwich said.
Obviously, the Jaguars had made some adjustments in their offense. They leaned a little harder on their shotgun formation. Whatever they did, it worked.
"We just executed a little better and didn't have any untimely penalty to kill it," Del Rio said, refusing to take credit for the turnaround.
"It opened up the field a little bit," he said of the shotgun formation, "but that's not going to be all we do because we're going to run the ball."
That third-quarter drive sent the game into overdrive. The Titans rallied to take a 12-7 lead with 5:43 to play in the game, when quarterback Steve McNair engineered one of his team's trademark ball-control touchdown marches. The Titans moved 74 yards in 10 plays, eating up 5:43 of the clock. Running back Chris Brown broke loose on a 26-yard touchdown run that put the Titans in the lead, and also ended the Jaguars' streak of holding opposing running backs under 100 yards. The streak was halted at 17 games.
The Jaguars faced a moment of truth. Would this be a changing-of-the-guard game, or would it be just another loss-as-usual to the Titans? The next five minutes and 28 seconds would supply the answer.
Leftwich put the Jaguars into forward motion with a third-and-nine completion of 15 yards to Smith. Taylor gained 13 and a first down at the Titans 40.
LaBrandon Toefield carved out five yards, then Leftwich hooked up with Wrighster for a four-yard gain. That play ended fortuitously for the Jaguars, since Wrighster's fumble rolled out of bounds.
On third-and-one, rookie Greg Jones pounded out three yards and a first down at the Titans 28 with 1:26 to play. Then, on third-and-four, Titans defensive end Carlos Hall jumped offside.
The big play in the drive followed. Leftwich had Smith breaking open at the goal line on a crossing route. Leftwich fired a bullet and defensive back Lamont Thompson shot through Smith before the ball had reached the Jaguars' star receiver; pass interference, ball at the one-yard line.
"It was either going to be a touchdown or pass interference. That's all he could've done," Leftwich said of Thompson's interference.
Two plays later, from the one-yard line, Taylor scampered into the end zone. The Coliseum crowd was stunned. Could this really be happening? Might their Titans actually lose at home to the Jaguars?
Yeah, not even another "Music City Miracle" attempt on the kickoff could help them. Oh, the times, they are a changin'.
"I think we really do like being undefeated," Leftwich said.
The win marked another dramatic finish for the Jaguars, who beat Denver when it fumbled the ball after moving into range to kick a game-winning field goal, and beat Buffalo when Leftwich threw a game-winning touchdown pass on the final play of the game. Leftwich has become somewhat of a final-drive star, though Sunday's game was only his 16th career start. He is 8-8 in his first full "season" as a starting quarterback.
"He's a very mature young man. We're real happy he's running our offense," Del Rio said of Leftwich.
Leftwich will be running the Jaguars' offense next Sunday when the Jaguars and Colts play in what will be the most important game in Jacksonville since the Titans began the Jaguars' suffering five seasons ago.
It's showdown time, again.