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Stroud in; Fred praised


Marcus Stroud is in the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season and the Jaguars are trying to make it into the playoffs for the first time in five years. Those were the headline topics on Wednesday, as the team began preparations for Sunday's game against visiting Houston.

"Excellent work today. Our focus remains on playing our very best football down the stretch," coach Jack Del Rio told reporters at Wednesday's press conference.

It was a press conference that included the announcement that Stroud is the only Jaguars player elected to the Pro Bowl. The defensive tackle was also the team's lone selection in 2003. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith and safety Deon Grant finished as first alternates.

"He's excited about it. We're happy for him. As we have more team success, we'll get more exposure. There are guys getting respect and getting votes. As we get exposure there will be more guys being honored," Del Rio said.

Del Rio chose to heap praise on running back Fred Taylor, who is closing on 8,000 career rushing yards but has yet to be named to the Pro Bowl. For his 165-yard rushing effort in the Jaguars' win over Green Bay, Taylor was named this week's AFC offensive player of the week and was awarded a "game ball" by Del Rio.

"In my time here, he's been a hard-nosed, tough, special running back. The more we get him the ball the better it looks. He has special ability and I'm happy to have him," Del Rio said of Taylor, who would make his 47th consecutive start this Sunday.

His durability in recent years is in stark contrast to the "Fragile Fred" tag that dogged him early in his career, when he missed 24 games due to injury in his first four seasons.

"It's very impressive," Del Rio said of Taylor's consecutive-starts achievement. "He's as tough a guy as I've been around. I think he needs to be seen in a little different light. I think people should stop with talk of what it was years ago."

Taylor is listed as "questionable" on the Jaguars' injury report. He sustained what is thought to be a minor knee sprain late in the win over the Packers. Cornerback Juran Bolden (quad) is also "questionable," while Stroud (knee) and safety Deke Cooper (groin) are "probable."

Clearly, the Jaguars are in good health for a stretch drive they hope will culminate in a playoff berth. The best formula for winning a playoff spot would seem to include two Jaguars wins and one Baltimore loss. That would do it, and the Jaguars would seem to be resting their hope for a Baltimore loss on the Steelers this Sunday.

Pittsburgh hosts Baltimore in a game that is of critical importance to the Jaguars. Should the Ravens win that game, they could clinch a playoff spot and possibly freeze out the Jaguars by beating visiting Miami on the final Sunday of the season.

"Two good teams. It ought to be fun to watch," Del Rio said of the Baltimore at Pittsburgh match. Del Rio joked that he might ban updates of that game from being shown on the Alltel Stadium scoreboard Sunday, to ensure his team is not distracted in its efforts against the Texans.

"For us, the focus has to be on playing the game," Del Rio said.

"It's a whole lot more fun to be in this situation than the one we were in last year," quarterback Byron Leftwich said, referring to the Jaguars' 5-11 record in 2003. "All of my focus is on Houston right now. Our goal is to make the playoffs.

"I feel good about our team," Leftwich added. "Does that mean anything? I don't know. I just feel real good about the way we're playing football."

In other news, the Jaguars placed tight end George Wrighster (back) on injured reserve and elevated fourth-year guard Derrick Fletcher from the practice squad to the active roster.

The Jaguars signed wide receiver Huey Whittaker to the practice squad. The 6-4, 233-pound Whittaker was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of South Florida by Pittsburgh. He was waived on Sept. 9 and signed by Tampa Bay to their practice squad on Sept. 15, then waived by the Bucs on Sept. 22. Whittaker takes the place of tackle Sean Bubin, who was claimed off the Jaguars practice squad by the Lions last week.

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