JACKSONVILLE — There are some days, Jack Del Rio acknowledged to The Sports Xchange here late Sunday afternoon, when he feels like the captain of a ship on the Bering Sea, just hoping that one of his greenhorns doesn’t knock him overboard with a wayward crab pot.
Sunday was one of those days, with the Jacksonville Jaguars coughing up the football six times (two lost fumbles, four interceptions), including ghastly turnovers on five consecutive possessions in the second half.
But fittingly, the Jaguars' improbable victory over the resourceful but offensively rudimentary Cleveland Browns came down to Jacksonville’s top player making the deadliest catch.
“We just put that play in this week,” Jaguars quarterback David Garrard told The Sports Xchange of a screen pass termed “Double Screen Right” in the Jacksonville offensive parlance, a ball that might have traveled all of eight yards in the air, but which mighty-mite tailback Maurice Jones-Drew then toted 75 yards to set up his one-yard touchdown run with 1:16 left in a 24-20 comeback victory. “When Dirk (Kotter, offensive coordinator) called it, I didn’t know (if it would work). I mean, it was the first time we'd ever used it. But it was just at the right time, wasn’t it?”
The timely big play, on which Jones-Drew broke a pair of tackles and made at least three cuts, moved the Jags, who have now won three straight, to 6-4 and shockingly into a tie for first in the AFC South. Almost as important, it kept the Jaguars from blowing off their own feet with offensive miscues.
In the week preceding the game, said Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who had two of his team’s six sacks, the Jaguars' buzz-phrase was “Breathe in, breathe out.” Mincey was somewhat obtuse in explaining the significance of the mantra. Even Del Rio, standing in the corridor outside his team’s locker room, was hard-pressed to define the meaning.
This much is clear: In winning a game they had no right claiming as a “W,” the surging Jaguars afforded themselves the luxury to exhale.
“I think, certainly, we defied the odds,” allowed Del Rio.
Garrard claimed that “never, ever, man,” had he won a game in which his team turned the ball over six times and was a minus-5 in takeaway/turnover differential.
Credit the Jaguars for their ability to hang close despite adversity. And blame the Browns for frittering away so many opportunities. It marked the first time since a Buffalo loss to Dallas on Oct. 8, 2007 that a club was plus-5 in the takeaway/turnover differential category and failed to win. The six takeaways for the Browns was their most since 2002.
“Usually, turnovers are huge,” noted Cleveland cornerback Sheldon Brown, who deflected two of the passes intercepted by others in the Cleveland secondary. “But today … I don’t know.”
Clearly, the Browns didn’t know what to do with the Jags' largesse. Cleveland did manage one score on a takeaway, when safety Abram Elam returned a Jones-Drew fumble 18 yards for a third-quarter touchdown and a 14-10 Cleveland lead. But the Browns got zero points from the other five turnovers. In fact, on the drives that followed those five turnovers the Browns totaled no first downs. They had four three-and-out possessions and a missed field goal.
The Browns' offensive production following the five takeaways: minus-10 yards.
With essentially no playmakers, and with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy making his fifth straight start, Cleveland could be slightly forgiven for such a vanilla offense. But the overall lack of imagination, and the inability to handle the blitz against a Jaguars' defense that came into the game with only five sacks on the season when it did not send an extra man on the pass rush, were unforgivable.
“Disappointing … just disappointing, that we didn’t do more (with the turnovers),” said McCoy, who was blitzed on at least three-quarters of his 34 “dropbacks,” and who sprained his ankle (although he stayed in the game) on an 18-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. “We've got to cash ‘em in.”
Playing without wide receiver and return man Josh Cribbs (dislocated toes), the offensively challenged Browns were further bankrupt of threats. Tailback Peyton Hillis gained only 48 yards on 21 carries and actually had more than twice that much real estate (95 yards) on six receptions. But only eight of McCoy’s 17 pass completions went to wide receivers, none for more than 17 yards.
Even though Cleveland started three possessions in Jacksonville territory, and 26 of the team’s 60 snaps were on the Jags' side of the 50-yard line, the Browns' offense scored only one touchdown. It didn’t help that kicker Phil Dawson missed a pair of 51-yard field goal attempts. Then again, Dawson has never really possessed a strong leg, and Browns' coach Eric Mangini could be second-guessed for both tries. As has been the case most of the season, the Browns' defense held them in the game, and the offense couldn’t deliver.
Of Cleveland’s seven defeats, five have been by seven points or less and three were by four points or fewer.
Conversely, the Jaguars' winning margin is just 6.5 points, and Jacksonville has won five times by eight points or fewer.
Crumpled up in a garbage can in the Jacksonville locker room was a newspaper clipping disseminated this week to players in which Jags' running backs coach Earnest Byner spoke openly about The Fumble, his 1987 bobble while playing for the Browns, and with only 1:12 remaining in the AFC championship game. The title of the newspaper story was, “A Lesson in Earnest,” and Jags' players apparently took the parable to heart.
There were myriad opportunities, wide receiver Mike Thomas noted after the win, to “just lay it down and fold the tents when things weren’t going well,” but the club maintained its composure and somehow found a way to win.
“Our guys hang tough and we win close games, which is what you have to do in this league,” Del Rio said. “We're a resilient bunch.
“Just like those Bering Sea guys.”