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Wilford missing link?


They had been looking for him for a long time. All they had to do was take a look at their bench. Finally, maybe, the Jaguars have replaced Keenan McCardell.

Ernest Wilford made his first start at wide receiver for the Jaguars on Sunday, and he did as a starter just as he had done coming off the bench: He made plays, none bigger than his 12-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 7-7 in the third quarter, and his grabs for 39 and 26 yards that allowed the Jaguars to tie the game at 14-14 early in the fourth quarter.

Wilford's stamp was all over the Jaguars' 21-14, come-from-behind win. In their game-winning touchdown drive, Wilford's 12-yard catch gave the Jaguars a first down at the Houston 42-yard line.

Once upon a time, McCardell made those kinds of catches. McCardell and Jimmy Smith teamed to become one of the best pass-catching combinations in the NFL. Then, in a move demanded by the salary cap, McCardell was cut following the 2001 season, and the Jaguars have struggled ever since to replace him. Maybe they did on Sunday.

Was that a resurrection of Smith and McCardell we were seeing in that game-winning drive? Wilford made the drive-sustaining possession catch, then Smith made the dramatic, acrobatic grab along the sideline.

Yeah, we remember those days.

Wilford led all Jaguars wide receivers with four catches for 89 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, he was the player to whom Byron Leftwich looked when the Jaguars desperately needed to make a play.

At the time, the Jaguars trailed the Texans 7-0. The Jaguars offense was lifeless, causing boos to rain down on Leftwich. He knew where to look; over the middle, where Wilford had cut easily under the coverage and was wide open crossing the goal line. Leftwich feathered the ball to Wilford for an easy touchdown.

The pressure hadn't eased, however, the next time the Jaguars had the ball. Trailing 14-7 following a surprising 84-yard touchdown drive by Houston, Leftwich found Wilford for 39 yards.

"That's just what Ernest does. He made more plays," Leftwich said.

Wilford had been making plays for the Jaguars since his first professional game. He caught the game-winning touchdown pass in Buffalo, in the Jaguars' 2004 season-opener, with no time left on the clock. Then he caught the game-winner the following week in the team's home-opener.

When Wilford exploded for a monster game in a losing cause last week in St. Louis, his penchant for productivity could no longer be ignored on a unit that was sorely lacking production. Jack Del Rio decided Wilford's time had come. More starts will no doubt follow.

"He just continues to do a nice job. He does everything right; works hard," Del Rio said of Wilford following Sunday's win. "He's not a burner, but there are a lot of guys who aren't burners who play well for a long time in this league."

As a fourth-round pick, Wilford came out of Virginia Tech with the reputation for being an over-achiever. He was immediately assigned to special teams. He was the ultimate try-hard guy, but he would seem to be so much more now.

He is now, possibly, the most important man in the Jaguars' passing game. He is, possibly, the missing link.

An exaggeration? Well, how else do we explain what happened in the second half on Sunday? All of a sudden, with the touchdown pass to Wilford, the Jaguars offense came to life. Maybe, just maybe, it has turned the corner, and if it has, let's not forget this day or that play.

"It's no big difference. I prepare myself as a starter every week and I try to go out there and make something happen. Fortunately, I did," Wilford said. "I think me and Byron get into a groove. The whole offense continued to improve. The defense they were playing allowed me to get open."

Fortunately, he did.

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