His coach has steadfastly maintained a "one game at a time" attitude for each week of this season, but veteran wide receiver Jimmy Smith couldn't ignore the obvious. "These next two games are critical," Smith told reporters as the Jaguars were to begin preparations on Wednesday for Sunday's game in Indianapolis.
At 4-2, the Jaguars would claim a half-game lead in the AFC South title race with a win over the 4-1 Colts. Right behind the Jaguars are the 3-3 Texans, who are idle this week and will host the Jaguars the following week.
Critical games? You bet they are. This is a two-game stretch of schedule that could produce two extremes: With wins in Indianapolis and Houston, the Jaguars could cruise into their bye week with the AFC South firmly in their control. Two losses, of course, would bury the Jaguars' division title hopes and would strike a major blow to the team's wild-card playoff hopes.
"Division opponent, business trip, road trip, another opportunity; certainly an opportunity to be in first place but I think it's more about being a better football team," Del Rio said of how he has represented this Sunday's game to his players.
All of that is true, of course, but there is much more. Having lost to the Colts three weeks ago, it goes without saying this one is not just another game. This one is also about postseason tie-breakers. This one actually counts two.
"We're playing one-game seasons. That's the way I like to approach it," Smith said.
And that's the way Del Rio wants his players to approach each game, but Smith can't ignore the simple logic of an intradivisional rematch. "This is why we play the game; for the big ones like this," Smith said.
Del Rio sent his team onto the practice field on Wednesday with a starting quarterback who was limited in his practice time by a sprained ankle he suffered in this past Sunday's win over Kansas City. Byron Leftwich is officially listed as "questionable" on the Jaguars' injury report, but that may be more formality than fact. Leftwich told reporters he'll be under center this Sunday.
"I'm feeling a whole lot better. I was kind of scared on Monday. I'm doing a lot of treatment and I'm feeling OK," Leftwich said.
Kick-returner Jermaine Lewis (concussion) and guard Vince Manuwai (knee) are also questionable, but neither player was to practice today. Tight end George Wrighster (back) is questionable and was to practice on a limited basis. Running backs Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (shoulder) and LaBrandon Toefield (knee) are probable for Sunday's game.
"All in all, we're in good shape for Sunday," Del Rio said.
Defensive tackle Willie Blade will not be in uniform, however, but his absence is not about injury. Del Rio announced at his press conference today that Blade has been suspended "for violating team rules under the conduct heading," Del Rio said. "He will re-join the team on Monday. That's the action that's been taken and we'll see him on Monday." Del Rio would not reveal the specific reason for Blade's suspension.
There was also another absence at practice on Wednesday: Taped crowd noise will not be broadcast during practice.
It had become a standard practice under Tom Coughlin that the Jaguars would prepare for road games by practicing to the sound of crowd noise. The intent, of course, was to prepare the team to function in a noisy environment.
Del Rio continued the regimen last season but decided to abandon the noise for this year's practices. "We played that sound out there all last year and didn't win a (road) game. It drove me crazy. We won the first game (this year) so I can assure you," Del Rio said, his voice trailing off.
Instead of going loud in preparation for road games, the Jaguars have turned the volume down, literally. Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave suggested "whisper mode" practices before road games and Del Rio liked the idea, so the Jaguars are speaking in whispers during practice this week as they prepare for a loud crowd at Indy's RCA Dome.
Call it the Jaguars' low-key approach, but there's no denying how "loud" these next two games will speak in the Jaguars' ultimate fate this season.