The Jaguars are alone in first place. They are a win and a week away from a middle-of-the-season record that would allow them lofty considerations. They are on a very high plane – the highest elevation this franchise has experienced since 1999 – which means coach Jack Del Rio will have to work especially hard this week to bring his team and its fans back to earth.
Good luck, coach.
Sunday's exhilarating, 27-24 win over the Colts in the RCA Dome has the Jaguars at 5-2 and clearly on pace for the playoffs. Next up is a trip to Houston. What would a win over the Texans do for Del Rio's team?
"The bottom line is we're proud to be 5-2 at this point," Del Rio said.
He has become the master of the understatement, but there is almost no understating what happened in Indianapolis on Sunday. His quarterback was sensational, again. His star running back came to life with his first 100-yard game of the season. Even Del Rio's rookie kicker, Josh Scobee, stepped into the limelight, as Scobee booted four field goals, the last of which was the game-winner from 53 yards out with 38 seconds left on the clock.
What? Are you kidding me? How does Del Rio explain that kind of aggressive decision-making? Scobee's a rookie. A miss would've handed Peyton Manning the ball needing only 20 yards to turn the game over to Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who didn't miss on a try all of last season.
Yeah, these Jaguars are red-hot. Everything they touch turns to gold, and nobody has the touch quite like Byron Leftwich does right now.
Leftwich answered every challenge on Sunday. When the Colts tied the game at 7-7, Leftwich put the Jags back on top, 10-7. When the Colts took the lead at 14-10, Leftwich cut it to 14-13 then put the Jags back up, 16-14.
When the Colts took a 17-16 lead with 9:32 to play in the game, Leftwich went 68 yards in five plays and pitched a 25-yard touchdown strike to Jimmy Smith. Then Leftwich threw a two-pointer to Ernest Wilford and the Jags had a 24-17 lead with 6:14 left.
Back stormed Manning, who went 82 yards in six easy plays and the game was tied with 3:52 to play. And then back came Leftwich, as he has done four times through the first half of the season. Leftwich moved the Jaguars into field goal range and Del Rio cast caution to the wind, even if it was a dome wind, and Scobee said I got your back, coach.
"We were at the outer edge of what we may comfortably kick. I don't know that we'd want to take too high of a risk and give them the ball" in good field position, said Del Rio, who watched Scobee closely in pregame warm-ups and decided 53 yards was within his comfortable range.
"In the end, I have a feel for what his range is," Del Rio said.
"To be able to help your team win like that is an incredible feeling. I've got to be prepared for that every week," Scobee said.
He wouldn't have had the chance, however, had it not been for Jaguars defensive end/linebacker Greg Favors, who played coach at a critical time of the game. As Manning was throwing an apparent nine-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison early in the fourth quarter, Favors noticed Harrison had stepped out of the back of the end zone before making the catch.
The officials ruled touchdown and replay wasn't forthcoming fast enough for the Jaguars coaches to advise Del Rio to challenge the call. Favors, however, told Del Rio to do it, Del Rio quickly considered the advice then pitched his red flag just in time before Vanderjagt booted the extra point. Replay review overruled the catch and the Colts had to settle for a field goal that staked them to a 17-16 lead. A touchdown, of course, would've forced the Jaguars into a touchdown mode in their final drive.
Yeah, Favors saved the day, and the defense had its moments, but Manning and company posted 446 yards of total offense and Manning threw for 368 gross yards, and the credit for this win went right to the Jaguars offense. It was very, very good; it would've been at its best had it not been for those darn short-yardage failures that continue to dog the Jaguars.
Only one of the Jaguars' five red-zone possessions produced a touchdown. The Jaguars failed on third-and-one in their opening drive, couldn't gain the inches necessary on third-and-one at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and then fumbled the ball away on fourth down, and failed on third-and-one at the goal line again on the team's next possession.
"Take a shot; be aggressive, be the more physical team. It was obvious it was going to take quite a few points to win this game," Del Rio said of his decision not to attempt a field goal on third-and-one and fourth-and-one at the goal line in the third quarter.
Short-yardage has become an obstacle for the Jaguars. In all other ways, the offense was at peak performance against the Colts.
"We left a lot of opportunities out there and that's what makes us mad because we know we're better than that," Fred Taylor said. Taylor rushed for 107 yards on 20 carries, a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, and caught five passes for 67 yards. It was the breakout game for which Jaguars fans had been waiting.
"If things aren't going well, we try to help each other out. We never had doubts about our offense," Taylor said.
The Jaguars' doubters are a diminishing lot. When the Jaguars got off to a 3-0 start, the consensus of opinion was they were lucky. Maybe they were, but there will be no such assessments made of Sunday's game.
In a very difficult indoor environment, the Jaguars left a lot of points on the field and were still able to beat the game's premier quarterback and a team trumpeted to be a Super Bowl favorite; a Colts team that was a 10-point favorite for Sunday's game.
What does that make the Jaguars?