All indications are Byron Leftwich will be the Jaguars' starting quarterback in New England on Saturday. Coach Jack Del Rio said in his postgame press conference on Sunday that Leftwich will be the starter if he's physically able to play and Del Rio added that he expects that will be the case.
"If Byron doesn't have any setbacks, he's our starting quarterback. It is just a matter of him continuing to progress like he did last week. He got a lot better last week as the week went on. On Friday he was almost full tilt," Del Rio told reporters following the Jaguars' regular season finale on Sunday, a 40-13 win over the Tennessee Titans at Alltel Stadium.
New England's loss to Miami earlier in the day left the Jaguars, 12-4, to meet the defending Super Bowl champions in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. on Saturday in New England.
Leftwich's continued recovery from a broken ankle he sustained on Nov. 27 will be the big story in the NFL this week. His progress will be intensely scrutinized and Del Rio will no doubt be second-guessed by media and fans who will claim that five weeks of inactivity will put Leftwich at a competitive disadvantage. Del Rio's decision to play Leftwich, if he's physically able, re-affirms Leftwich's status as the Jaguars' starting quarterback and Del Rio's confidence in him.
"He was cleared (medically)," Del Rio said of Leftwich's playing status for Sunday's game against the Titans. Leftwich did not play, however, as David Garrard made his fifth consecutive start, having led the Jaguars to a 4-1 record in those five games.
"It was my decision. He really wanted to play. It's my responsibility to this organization. I didn't want to expose him to a situation in which he could've re-injured himself," Del Rio said.
Garrard spoke after the game as a man who knew he had played his last game this season.
"Byron is going to do everything possible to play this game. If the coaches feel he's ready to go, then he is," Garrard said.
"That's been my job for the last four years. I need to make sure I'm ready, I'm 100 percent if my number is called," he added.
Garrard completed 10 of 16 passes for 128 yards and an 87.5 passer rating against the Titans, 4-12, who were no match for the Jaguars. Quinn Gray took over at quarterback to start the second half and Garrard retired to the bench a proud caretaker of the quarterback position.
"What was most important when the year started was making the playoffs. What we do from here is what I'm focused on," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars rested several regulars, including Fred Taylor and Greg Jones. Little-used running back LaBrandon Toefield plowed under the Titans for 102 yards rushing, including a 32-yard touchdown run, as the Jaguars took a 27-0 lead into halftime.
"We elected to play quite a few people and elected not to play Byron. I felt he needed more time. Ideally, I would've liked to have played him," Del Rio said.
In New England, the Jaguars will face a football team that is 9-0 in the postseason with Tom Brady at quarterback. The Jaguars are also likely to face typical playoff conditions in New England and Del Rio says his team will be prepared for a cold-weather game.
"It's something you have to deal with mentally. You're going to be a lot colder if you're not winning. We built this football team to be able to function outdoors in January," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars were also built to function with Leftwich as their starting quarterback.