The question no longer needs to be asked, but, one more time: Can the Jaguars be playoff contenders? Yes, they officially belong in that category following today's impressive, 28-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, a team considered to be the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
With the win, which wasn't as close as the final score would suggest, the Jaguars remain tied with the Indianapolis Colts, each 3-1, for the AFC South lead. All of a sudden anything seems to have become possible.
"It was a playoff atmosphere," coach Tom Coughlin said of a game that drained the spirit and exhausted the body, and left Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb so wilted by the heat, humidity and pace of play that he vomited twice as he prepared to take one of the game's final snaps.
This was classic football played in front of the most enthusiastic Alltel Stadium crowds in at least three seasons. It was everything a young, untested team could want in the way of legitimacy. The Jaguars earned the right to say they're for real, thanks to an efficient offense that made the most of its opportunities, a defense that stood up to McNabb as no one thought possible, and a special teams play that turned out to be the game-winner.
"Everybody was excited. It was packed and noisy and people were into it. It was great. That was a big factor, I thought," Coughlin said in complimenting the 65,005 in attendance.
Quarterback Mark Brunell was the perfect counter to McNabb. Brunell was cool and calm in picking his spots, which he did with two passes to Jimmy Smith that Smith turned into major gainers.
The defense allowed nothing longer than a 22-yard gainer through the air, and punished Eagles receivers before dropping them in their tracks following McNabb's short, underneath passes.
Then Bobby Shaw, who went catchless as a wide receiver, produced the game-winner when he went 69 yards with a punt behind a wall of blockers in the fourth quarter. Shaw, the receiver the Jaguars signed in free agency who was said to be too slow, shot down the field like a bullet.
"They did two things, they stopped the run and they covered Jimmy (Smith)," Brunell said. "We were patient. We didn't make mistakes; we had a few big plays that helped us. It was a full team win."
The win is another example of the value of teamwork. The Jaguars claim to be bonded more strongly than they have been in recent years, and they profess to have a strong sense of belief about their ability to win.
"I don't believe in that rebuilding stuff. In this day of the NFL, you have to win now. Before Indianapolis, I don't think we believed we can win. Now we believe we can win," Smith said.
"The guys they brought in and the way we bonded together, that's how you win," middle linebacker Wali Rainer added.
There was another aspect to the Jaguars' success Sunday. They claimed to have seen the Eagles jump on their midfield logo during pregame. Jaguars players said it was a clear expression of disrespect.
"That's the way I took it and that's what got me focused," cornerback Fernando Bryant said.
"The last team that did that beat us," running back Fred Taylor added, referring to the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 30, 2001.
Disrespect would seem to be fueling this team's desire this season. It began during the offseason, when preseason forecasts put the Jaguars no higher than third in their division. They decided they would prove the "experts" wrong and that's what they're doing.
"You gotta believe. That's the case. We're still a work in progress. It's early. The players have to understand that," Coughlin said.
Coughlin is one of the major stars in his team's surprising revival from consecutive losing seasons. At the season's quarter pole, Coughlin is one of the leading candidates for NFL coach of the year. Sunday, with the Jaguars nursing a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter and the ball at the Eagles two-yard line, fourth-and-one, Coughlin put his belief on the shoulders of his offense. He opted to go for the first down and not a field goal.
"I felt we could make the first down. I wasn't looking for the touchdown," he said.
Stacey Mack got each on consecutive carries. It was the turning point in the game and Coughlin's decision was cheered by the crowd. It marked the first time in a long time Coughlin was cheered.
These were the game's big plays:
• Rookie kicker Hayden Epstein booted field goals of 34 and 31 yards to give the Jaguars a 6-0 lead.
• The Eagles took a 7-6 lead on McNabb's four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chad Lewis.
• A 12-men-on-the-field penalty against the Eagles on a Chris Hanson punt put the Jaguars in business at the Philly 48-yard line. Brunell and Smith hooked up for 26 yards to the two-yard line and Brunell followed that play with a two-yard touchdown toss to tight end Kyle Brady. Then Brunell threw a two-point swing pass to Taylor to give the Jags a 14-7 lead.
• Eagles kicker David Akers capped a short drive with a 31-yard field goal that cut the Jags' lead to 14-10.
• Coughlin said "go" and Mack did.
• Shaw went 69 yards for the eventual game-winner.
McNabb turned in a courageous effort. He appeared too exhausted to pull away from center when he threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman on the game's final play.
"It's very simple. We played a very good football team, number one. Compliments to them," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
How's that for respect?