For the Jacksonville Jaguars to realize their dreams of contending in the AFC, they're first going to have to get past a serious stumbling block:
In 2006, the Jags' Jekyll-and-Hyde personality produced an 8-8 finish. It could have—and should have—been much better.
There were weeks the Jaguars looked like world beaters, as when they handed losses to the Cowboys, the Eagles, and, most notably, the Colts.
Then there were weeks the Jags looked like losers, as when they dropped games to the Redskins, the Bills, the Titans, and the Texans (twice!).
Should this team find a way to stay consistent, they're good enough to make a run at an AFC title. Of course, the Jaguars have proven that to be easier said than done.
Up and down is no way to challenge the Colts in the AFC South. Many playoff teams have worse running games and run defenses than Jacksonville, but those teams play deep into January because they win the games they're supposed to win.
Looking at their schedule, the Jags have nine games they could and should win—against Atlanta, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Oakland, and Houston and Tennessee twice apiece.
The Jaguars also have several games they'll have every chance to win: Carolina, Pittsburgh, and an early visit to Denver. If Jacksonville splits the season series with the Colts again, this could be a 13-win team.
Will it be?
The Jaguars didn't do much to foster stability in the offseason. Coach Jack Del Rio is still in charge, the quarterback position is still a question mark, and there are still very few options at receiver.
Fortunately, the team is also still stacked everywhere else.
In 2006, the Jaguars ranked in the NFL's top ten in pass defense, run defense, and rushing offense. Overall, their defense was ranked second in the league, behind only the Baltimore Ravens.
It should be right back there again.
Jacksonville returns 10 of 11 starters on defense. Departed safety Deon Grant will be replaced by rookie Reggie Nelson, who could be a star. Stout defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are only getting better in the middle of the defense, and the healthy returns of MLB Mike Peterson, DE Reggie Hayward, and S Donovin Darius should make a big difference.
Offensively, the running game benefited from the addition of rookie Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006. Many thought Jones-Drew would be little more than a special teams standout when he entered the league, but he quickly proved himself capable of carrying the load in the backfield.
Jones-Drew finished the year with 13 rushing touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards while splitting carries with Fred Taylor. He should be even better in 2007.
The only real question mark in Jacksonville remains the passing game. After battling injuries and falling out of favor with Del Rio, former franchise quarterback Byron Leftwich is playing for his job. If backup quarterback David Garrard had shown better in his starts last year, Leftwich might already have received his walking papers.
Resolving the QB dilemma would be easier if Jacksonville had quality wide receivers. Instead, the starter, whoever he is, will resort to drilling bullets in the direction of Matt Jones, Reggie Williams, and Ernest Wilford—not exactly the best group in the league.
The fact that Leftwich has hung around for so long makes it seem likely that he'll be the Jags' man this season. If he can finally fulfill the team's expectations, he'd be a welcome source of stability on the offensive side of the ball.
Beyond that, the Jags have everything going for them. Their schedule sets them up for success. Their running game and defense are among the league’s best. And the Colts can’t win the division every year.
Even a little consistency week-in and week-out should make this team a contender.
And, thankfully, they won’t be seeing the Texans in the playoffs.
Projected finish: 10-6, 2nd AFC South
Keep your eyes on: CB Rashean Mathis—The best cornerback this side of Champ Bailey.
Take your eyes off: WR Matt Jones—The best wide receiver this side of Todd Pinkston.
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