Has Next Year Arrived?

Jaguars fans have been forced to utter the phrase "wait ‘till next year," nearly every season since their improbable AFC title game run in 1996. Don't get me wrong, Jaguars fans haven't suffered anywhere near as much as the loyal fans of the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series in 99 years, or even the Boston Red Sox fans, who went 86 seasons between championships.

To get back to the sport of football, Detroit Lions fans haven't had much to celebrate about since 1957, and the Cleveland Browns have just been a tortured fan base for roughly 43 years. Whereas the near misses have been difficult for Jaguars fans to digest, they could have it much worse.

The Jaguars play in the most attractive game this Sunday in Indianapolis against the Super Bowl champion Colts. With a victory, the Jaguars would move into a tie with the Colts for first place, although Indianapolis would still own the division record tiebreaker. It's a long-shot that the Jaguars would overtake the Colts for their first AFC South title, even with a victory this weekend, due to Indy's soft finishing schedule in which they travel to Baltimore then Oakland, before finishing with Houston and Tennessee at home. But hey, anything can happen.

Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio summed it up with just a few words--

"Can we win the division without winning this game? No."

A Jaguars victory or defeat may not even improve or hurt the team's playoff seeding. The Jaguars will likely make the playoffs even if they drop this game, and they would likely be able to hold on to the fifth seed. With a win, the Jaguars wouldn't likely capture the division, and they'd still have to go on the road for as long as they last in the playoffs. Quarterback David Garrard remains optimistic about the Jaguars chances of winning the division--

"I think we can catch the Colts. I think these guys are very hungry and we're determined this year. We have a lot of things going our way this year. Guys are showing a great ability to go out and forget about what's happened around the league each Sunday and just concentrate on playing football. We need to do that this week because this is a big one coming up."

Although the odds are not in the Jaguars favor, this game means quite a bit to the Jaguars players. A victory in Indianapolis would even the Jaguars record with the Colts, and a victory in the house of the defending Super Bowl champs would be something that Jack Del Rio's team can take with them into the playoffs.

Veteran Sammy Knight described the magnitude of Sunday's game--

"It is one of those tests. It is not time to get complacent. We will be playing against a team that will be fighting and knowing they will have to put it all on the line. For them they are on the brink of the playoffs, too."

Although the Jaguars identity in recent years has been one in which they play up or down to their opponents, Jags fans shouldn't feel overconfident on Sunday because they are playing a very good team. In big games in the Del Rio era, the Jaguars have been far from stellar. In 2004, with a playoff berth on the line, the Jaguars laid an enormous egg in the home finale against the only team in NFL history not to have a winning season, the Houston Texans. On a frigid day in Jacksonville, the Jaguars were blanked 21-0, in front of a paid crowd of 66,277, half of which were dressed as empty seats.

Just a year later, the Jaguars were rolling with a 9-3 record when they faced the undefeated Indianapolis Colts at home with a chance to make a statement. Jacksonville was outclassed, and the 26-18 final score was not indicative of how the Colts dominated. Jacksonville faced an even bigger game the following month as they made their return to the playoffs after a five year hiatus. The had a tough draw playing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the road, and the Jaguars weren't nearly up to the task, as they lost 28-3.

2006 may have been the biggest disappointment in recent team history. The Jaguars played their finest game of the season, dismantling the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts 44-17, thanks to a franchise record 375-yard rushing performance. That left the team with a record of 8-5, nearly a lock for their second straight trip to the postseason. All the Jaguars did was follow that win with three consecutive losses to end the season, missing out on the playoffs by just one game. Any one of the Jaguars final three defeats would have likely secured the team a playoff position.

If you're counting at home, that's six potential big games for the Jaguars over the last three seasons, and six consecutive losses. If you count the first game between the Colts and Jaguars on Monday night this year with first place on the line, the Jaguars are 0/7. Is this 2007 team any different? Tight end Marcedes Lewis think so. Lewis described the difference between this years Jaguars and the 2006 team--

"Everyone understands that in order to get to where we need to go then we have to sell out. I thinks that's one of the commitments the team has made whether we win or lose we do it as a team."

Special teams star and game ball recipient Montell Owens also weighed in--

"I feel as if we have more of a hunger this year, we're always competing within the team and that's what really drives us."

Although Indianapolis is an a somewhat enviable position, being that they can still lose on Sunday and control their own destiny, Colts head coach Tony Dungy still sees it as a big game--

"It really is (a big game) because you can see how things are going to unfold. There's not a lot of guess work to it. If we win this game, it would take really a monumental disaster for us not to win the division. If we don't win this game, then it's going to be a dogfight the last four weeks of the year and we're going to have to come in and not only win our division, but hope Pittsburgh loses some games (as well). So we have everything in front of us to understand that it is a big game, and I think we'll play accordingly."

Is this really a big game even though it probably won't affect the final standings or seedings? The answer is a resounding yes. If the Jaguars can't beat Indianapolis even once during the regular season, how are they going to go on the road in the playoffs and beat them, or an even better team that resides in Foxboro, Mass? The big question is if the Jaguars are ready to change their big game identity? We'll find out on Sunday.

Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of JagNation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.

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