Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) at Houston Texans (2-12)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Bill Macatee, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 8th meeting. The Texans lead the series 4-3. The Texans hope to avoid being swept by Jacksonville for the first time in their four-year history. The Texans split with the Jaguars in 2002 and 2003. Last season, the Texans swept the Jaguars.
2005 RANKINGS: Jaguars: offense 20th (11th rush, 21st pass); defense 4th (14th rush, 6th pass). Texans: offense 31st (13th rush, 30th pass); defense 31st (31st rush, 26th pass)
PREDICTION: Jaguars 19-14
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Texans have a tall task considering the Jaguars have allowed just eight 100-yard rushers in 46 games under coach Jack Del Rio. It wasn't a coincidence that Houston posted a season-high 30 points last Sunday while scoring a franchise-record three rushing touchdowns. A ground presence is essential with QB David Carr playing behind a porous offensive line, especially with the Jaguars possessing a pair of strong bookend pass rushers in DEs Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer. The Jaguars could find themselves in trouble if they can't get their own running game untracked, and the Texans have limited their past three opponents to an average 68.3 yards on the ground. QB David Garrard has yet to get in sync with the Jaguars' receivers, but he will need to execute a few plays downfield to force Houston to respect the pass.
FAST FACTS: Jaguars: Clinch a Wild Card spot with a victory. ... Have a three-game road winning streak. ... WR Jimmy Smith needs 94 yards for his ninth 1,000-yard receiving season in the past 10 years. Texans: Are 0-5 against the AFC South this season. ... Carr is 4-2 in six career starts against Jacksonville.
--RB Greg Jones was downgraded from probable to questionable with a neck injury. He hasn't practiced this week.
--RB Fred Taylor is likely to carry the running load against Houston because of Greg Jones neck injury. He's just coming back from an ankle injury that caused him to miss three of the last five games.
--CB Rashean Mathis will wear a protective covering over the broken finger on his hand for the third consecutive game. The injury seems to have affected his play.
--QB Byron Leftwich hopes to start running Friday, but there's no timetable for his return from the cracked bone in his ankle.
--MLB Mike Peterson leads the team with 178 tackles, but was only a third alternate in the Pro Bowl balloting.
--DE Travis Johnson left practice early on Thursday when his back tightened up and forced him to his knees during a non-contact drill. If he is unable to play on Saturday, newly promoted Alfred Malone would play as a reserve in Johnson's place. Malone was moved up from the practice squad this week to replace Junior Ioane, who went on the IR list with a calf injury.
--RB Domanick Davis did not practice again. He will work out before the game to see if he is able to play. He hasn't practiced in two weeks because of fluid and swelling in his knee.
--LB Frank Chamberlin (hamstring) did not practice and will not likely be activated on Saturday.
--QB David Carr (hip) practiced and is 100-percent for Saturday.
--LT Chester Pitts (ankle) has practiced and should not be limited on Saturday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Jaguars are expected to try to run the ball Saturday against a Houston Texans defense that is ranked 31st in the league. But one of their running backs suffered a setback Thursday when Greg Jones was downgraded from probable to questionable with a neck injury Thursday. That likely means that veteran Fred Taylor will carry the running load Saturday against the Houston Texans.
Jones suffered the injury in the San Francisco game last Sunday and hasn't practiced this week. Taylor has played only a half of the last two Texans games, but is healthy again and has been sharing time with Jones, but it's uncertain if he's ready to carry the load.
Taylor missed the 21-0 loss to the Texans last December with a knee injury and had 48 yards in 12 carries in the first half when the teams met Nov. 6 before aggravating an ankle injury. The Jaguars won that time, 21-14. Taylor then played in only two of the next five games and got just 16 carries for 11 yards. But he appeared to start getting back in a groove last week when he got 61 yards on 17 carries against the 49ers.
Coach Jack Del Rio said of Taylor's progress, "I think Fred continues to be a great player. I think the bigger the running lanes are, the better he's going to look and feel. He's fought through some things. He's not the same guy who came out of Florida. We're continuing to get him more room by design and by blocking so he can do his thing."
The Jaguars can clinch a playoff spot Saturday, but Taylor said the key is to concentrate on playing well. "We know what's in front of us. But you can't think about that. You have to execute your assignments," Taylor said.
Every time Jerome Mathis was approached by friends or teammates about the Pro Bowl this week, he brushed them off. He didn't want to get excited. He kept reminding himself that he's just a rookie. No one in the league held it against the 22-year-old that he was a fourth-round pick out of Hampton, though. When the votes of players and coaches around the league were tabulated, it was evident they looked strictly at his statistics.
Mathis was named the AFC's kick return specialist for the 2006 Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Feb. 12.
Coach Dom Capers made the announcement to the Texans after practice Wednesday, and it gave the players and coaches a rare opportunity to celebrate in the midst of their disappointing season. "We are at 2-12 with not much going for us, but here we are with a bright spot on our team," special teams coach Joe Marciano said.
When healthy, Mathis has been a constant highlight reel for the Texans. He leads the NFL in kickoff returns, averaging 29.8 yards, and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
Mathis' 1,402 total kickoff return yards ranks him second in the league, despite missing four games this season because of a hamstring injury. "Who else has returned two kicks this year? Nobody," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "It's well deserved. Without those two kicks, it looks even worse when we play against Kansas City (45-17), and against Indy (38-20). He's definitely helped us out."
Mathis becomes only the fourth Pro Bowler in the Texans' four-year history. Defensive end Gary Walker and former safety Aaron Glenn earned the honor in 2002. Wide receiver Andre Johnson was named to the team last season.
Mathis was the only Texan with a legitimate chance of making the Pro Bowl this season. With rookies rarely being included, though, Mathis figured he might get passed over. He and San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman (a No. 1 pick) were the only rookies invited.
"I knew it was going to come down to the wire," Mathis said. "I believe it probably came down to me and (Kansas City's) Dante Hall. But it was the best man who won."