IN THE eightmonths since their 2005 season ended, the Jacksonville Jaguars had reason tobelieve they might finally be ready to overtake the Indianapolis Colts in theAFC South. Indy lost All-Pro tailback Edgerrin James to Arizona, whileJacksonville's already stingy defense was bolstered by the signing ofcornerback Brian Williams and the return of safety Donovin Darius, who'd missed14 games last season with a torn ACL. The Jaguars opened the 2006 season bybeating the highly touted Cowboys 24--17 and bullying the Super Bowl championSteelers 9--0 (holding Pittsburgh to 26 yards rushing, the lowest in coach BillCowher's 15-season tenure). That one-two punch showed that Jacksonville mightbe the AFC South's new power and a Super Bowl contender.
But for theJaguars, no game is as defining as the one against division-rival Indianapolis,and after a 21--14 loss to the Colts on Sunday, they're still looking up atIndianapolis, the dominant force in the AFC South, if not the conference."When the game is over and we have a W, then we're getting closer [to theColts]," Jacksonville safety Deon Grant said after the game. "We don'tbelieve in playing them close. As long as we don't get that W, they're runningthings in our division."
It's a maddeningreality for Jacksonville, which has won 10 straight regular-season gamesagainst teams not named the Colts. They've done it with a stifling defensethat, playing in a small market without a superstar, has been largelyanonymous. Anchored by Pro Bowl tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, theJaguars turned Indy's attempted jaunts up the middle into the equivalent of anescape attempt from Alcatraz; James's hapless replacements, Dominic Rhodes andJoseph Addai, combined for 63 yards on 17 carries. And Peyton Manning oftenlooked discombobulated as he completed 14 of 31 for 219 yards.
Yet the Coltsfound new ways to torment their rivals. Early in the second quarter TerrenceWilkins returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at seven, andwith 8:35 left Manning adroitly faked a handoff to Addai before scampering tohis right, untouched, two yards into the end zone for a 21--7 lead, all butsealing the victory. It was Manning's first rushing touchdown since 2002.
Asked what theColts got out of the win, Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney said,"Separation." His remark shows just how aware the Colts are thatJacksonville is nipping at their heels. Indy's last loss within the divisioncame on Oct. 24, 2004--to the Jaguars. And close outcomes against Jacksonvillehave become old news for the Colts. Indianapolis has won four of its last fiveagainst the Jaguars, but the average margin in those five games is a touchdown."Typical Colts-Jaguars game," said Manning after Indy's win onSunday.
Now the Jaguarsmust wait until Dec. 10--when Indianapolis visits Alltel Stadium--for anothercrack at the Colts. "They still have a lot of football, and we still have alot of football," said Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich on Sunday."You can't win or lose the Super Bowl in Week 3."
But you can get arough reminder of who still runs the AFC South.