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Much at stake Sunday


Khalif Barnes is ticketed for his first pro start this Sunday and he'll have a national television audience as his witness.

"If we have a good week of practice, which we anticipate, Khalif will start at left tackle," coach Jack Del Rio said at his mid-day news conference on Wednesday. "I feel Khalif is a good, young football player who will improve with experience."

The Jaguars can only hope Barnes will be the solution to the team's desperate need at left tackle. The rookie second-round pick will be asked to protect quarterback Byron Leftwich's blind side against a combination of Robert Geathers, David Pollack and Justin Smith.

It's a game that will feature more than Barnes against the Bengals' pass-rush. This Sunday night's contest will be a high-profile clash of 2003 first-round quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Leftwich, and third-year head coaches Marvin Lewis and Del Rio.

"Both are talented players. Both are playing well in their third years. I think Carson is playing extremely well. I think he has a quicker release than Byron but I think Byron may be a better decision-maker," Del Rio said in comparing the two passers.

Palmer, of course, was selected first overall in '03; Leftwich was the seventh pick of that draft. Three seasons later, Palmer is the second-rated passer in the league at 112.2 and his Bengals are 4-0. Leftwich is 13th in the league at 85.7 and his Jaguars are 2-2.

"That's one of the most memorable days of my life," Leftwich said of draft day, when he and Palmer were two of the headline players the league invited to draft headquarters in New York. Palmer had already signed a contract with the Bengals to be the draft's first pick. Leftwich had worked out for the Bengals in Cincinnati only a few weeks earlier.

"At that point I don't think they had their minds made up," Leftwich said.

Will he be attempting to prove this Sunday that the Bengals picked the wrong guy?

"I don't need to do that. I need to win because we need to win. I'm not going into this thing like you should've taken me," Leftwich said. "He's a good guy and I'm glad to see him do good."

Del Rio needs to win because his team desperately needs to move its record back into the black and stay in the playoff race. At 2-2, this may be a crossroads game for the Jaguars.

"I think the team understands the need to go forward," Del Rio said of not being dogged by this past Sunday's 20-7 loss to Denver. "I think I'm better at it than I was earlier in my career.

"The fact that we're coming off a stinging defeat should make it easier to dig in and know what's at stake," Del Rio added.

What's at stake? Well, staying within two games of the AFC South-leading Colts would seem to be a logical incentive. The Colts play in San Francisco.

But there's more.

The Bengals are a team against whom the Jaguars could find themselves competing for a wild-card spot. This game is likely to have a major bearing on the wild-card picture.

But there's more.

On the heels of a disappointing home loss, the Jaguars need to make peace with their fans. Criticism of the team this week has been intense and, as expected, Leftwich has been the most prominent target.

"I like Byron. He's our quarterback. I think he's poised to have a strong year for us," Del Rio said in reaffirming his faith in Leftwich.

Veteran running back Fred Taylor has also been targeted by fans who question whether Taylor is recovered from last winter's knee surgery and if Taylor will ever be the star runner he was.

"How long is Jimmy (Smith) going to be able to do it? How long is Fred going to be able to do it? We're going to keep using him. Those guys have been great players for a long time and at some point 'Father Time' is going to catch them, but it hasn't happened yet," Del Rio said.

Is Matt Jones performing up to expectations, Del Rio was asked at today's press conference?

"I would say he's done about what I expected he would do. He's going to get better and better over time. Reggie Williams is about what I hoped he would be; being a stronger football player.

"Guys like Reggie and Byron will have a chance to be at their best when we are functioning at a high level. When it comes together you're going to see those types of things," Del Rio said.

The Jaguars hope Barnes will eliminate one trouble spot that has kept the Jaguars from reaching a high level on offense in the first month of the season.

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