Jaguars ignore distractions, focus on earning spot in NFL playoffs

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As a television set in the Jacksonville Jaguars team auditorium showed the past two AFC champions -- Pittsburgh and New England - falling to defeat last Sunday, Maurice Jones-Drew stood on the other side of the door, marveling at his own team's moxie.

"Maybe we don't know any better," Jones-Drew said after Jacksonville's 23-18 win over Houston put the surprising Jaguars at 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race. "That's a good thing."

One year after a 5-11 season, the young Jaguars have entered the maw of December football, details be damned. They have trouble drawing a crowd. (Only 42,079 watched the Jaguars defeat Houston at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium). They make mistakes. (They gifted the Texans with a muffed punt and a safety). And, yet, their postseason destiny is in their control, beginning Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins (6-6).

Despite playing in a half-empty stadium this season and dogged by rumors that the franchise could be bound for Los Angeles, the Jaguars have proven resilient amid the headwinds. Jack Del Rio began the season on the short list of men coaching for their future. The Jaguars' starting quarterback, David Garrard, plays for a fan base in which some are hoping Tim Tebow replaces him. And the Jaguars defense gave up 30 or more points three times in Jacksonville's first seven games, including a 41-0 shutout in Seattle.

"It hasn't been an easy road and we're still on our journey," said Jacksonville linebacker Clint Ingram. "But everyone has their eye on the same goal."

The path to the postseason remains perilous -- after Miami, Jacksonville hosts Indianapolis and travels to New England before ending the season in Cleveland -- but the Jaguars do have some things in their favor, most notably a pounding running game, led by Jones-Drew in his first-year as a full-time back, and an aggressive, young defense.

Before the season the Jaguars also gutted most of their receiving corps, releasing Matt Jones and Reggie Williams, two former first-round picks who had run afoul of the law, plus the veterans Jerry Porter and Dennis Northcutt. They kept Mike Sims-Walker, who has become the team's leading receiver, with 52 catches, and added veteran Torry Holt, who has provided leadership and 44 catches.

"Obviously the addition of Torry has paid dividends for the younger guys -- those guys want to be him," said Jaguars receivers coach Todd Monken. "That was the start of it, just having guys wanting to learn."

No example better explains that learning than receiver Nate Hughes, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Jaguars in 2008. In a 31-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, Hughes dropped two potential touchdowns. When the Jaguars released him the next day, Garrard sent Hughes a text message, telling him that one day he'd get another chance.

Hughes wrote Garrard back, telling him, "If I get a chance to come back here, I'm going to make sure that I don't mess it up and that I give you everything I've got," Garrard said.

The team re-signed Hughes to the practice squad after he cleared waivers and promoted him to the active roster last month.

Against the Texans, Hughes got his chance for redemption, snaring a 35-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone in the second quarter.

"I knew once Nate got his opportunity, I wouldn't be scared to throw it to him," said Garrard.

Said Hughes: "I was just glad to get a chance to prove I can play on this level. I didn't quite take advantage of it the last time."

With a month left in the season, he's just one of the many Jaguars embracing the moment, no matter the imperfections.

A small home crowd. A young team. A muddled playoff picture.

And, still, a chance.