All of a sudden, the problems on their offensive line magically disappeared. Byron Leftwich wasn't sacked. Fred Taylor rushed for 132 yards. Is all of that to be attributed to rookie tackle Khalif Barnes' first pro start?
That might be stretching the truth a bit, but it's no exaggeration to say that just when the situation on the offensive line looked darkest, the light shined brightest in the Jaguars' 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night.
Some were saying this was a must-win game. That may have been stretching the truth a little, too, but it was also no exaggeration to say the Jaguars were facing a critically important game. This was a crossroads game and the Jaguars approached it with an energy higher than anything they had shown previously this season.
They stormed to an early 13-0 lead, and at times, they were on the verge of closing the door on the Bengals. It wasn't, however, until Bobby McCray sacked quarterback Carson Palmer and forced a fumble that Akin Ayodele recovered with 1:16 to play in the game, that the Jaguars had, indeed, closed the door.
When that play began, the Jaguars had the look of a team in trouble. The Bengals trailed by three points and needed only 10 more yards to ease into range for a game-tying field goal. Palmer had a hot hand. It looked bleak for the Jaguars. Then, all of a sudden, the Jaguars' record was 3-2 and the Bengals were 4-1.
"What happens if you don't win?" Del Rio said of the question that gnawed at his team last week. "We could not fear failing. We got gunned up for this football game."
Nobody got more "gunned up" than Taylor. Had it not been for holding penalties that cost him a 41-yard touchdown run on the game's first play, and a couple of other sizable gains, too, Taylor would've pushed the 200-yard mark. And that raised the question, how could Taylor have played his best football since late last season, on the heels of the worst full-game rushing effort of his career?
"I was counting on Fred and Jimmy (Smith) to ignite us and they did. Those two guys played outstanding football for us," Del Rio said of Taylor and Smith, who were installed as symbolic captains for this game. Del Rio was counting on the Jaguars' two most esteemed veterans to lead the team's offense out of the darkness, and they did.
"That's the way it's always been. We run Fred and then we throw it to me," Smith said.
Yeah, it has seemingly always been that way. Smith made three big catches for 43 yards, on a night when Byron Leftwich's statistics were rather meager, other than for the fact that Leftwich threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions. It left him with a 92.5 passer rating and a victory over Palmer (22 of 33 for 239 yards, two touchdowns and a 108.0 passer rating), the first pick of the 2003 draft. Leftwich, of course, was that draft's seventh pick.
"We got a win. There's nothing wrong with winning. You can't find fault with winning in this league," Leftwich said.
Leftwich was quick to credit Barnes, who got blocking help from tight end Kyle Brady.
"That boy did a heckuva job. It was like he had been playing all of the time. You would've never known it was his first start," Leftwich said of Barnes.
"Still alive," Barnes said. "It might be a little expensive but I'm still alive," he added, referring to personal foul penalties that could cost him fine money.
"We're excited about rushing the ball the way we did; putting a game together. Our offensive line can rest a little better tonight," tackle Maurice Williams said.
Leftwich threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end George Wrighster in the first quarter and an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ernest Wilford early in the third quarter, and Josh Scobee kicked field goals of 31, 51 and 53 yards. Then, the offense turned the game over to the defense to preserve the win. This time, they did.
"We just had more energy tonight. We came out and won the game this week," Leftwich said.
The major thrust of the Jaguars' defensive strategy was to focus attention on star wide receiver Chad Johnson, who made a 14-yard touchdown catch just before halftime, but finished the game with a rather tame five catches for 52 yards.
"We gave him a lot of attention, so we were able to limit his effectiveness. We had to slow him down and not let him take over the game," Del Rio said of Johnson.
Johnson complained that he wasn't provided enough opportunities to make catches.
"They didn't get it to me, period. They doubled me the whole game. That happens every week. Does that mean that when a team doubles me that I'm through? It's not hard to get it to Terrell Owens or Randy Moss," Johnson said.
It would seem the Bengals took the loss hard.
"We felt like we should beat that team," Palmer said.
Following the game, Jaguars players talked about the possibility of facing the Bengals in the playoffs. They wouldn't have been talking that way had they lost. That's what the win meant.