Heading into this season, many NFL analysts viewed the Jacksonville Jaguars as a darkhorse sleeper in the very tough AFC South. But the thinking was that with Tennessee and Indianapolis as the big dogs of the division, it would take the Jags a while longer to make their move toward the top.
Instead, the Jags, under head coach Jack Del Rio, have become the latest NFL incarnation of the Cardiac Kids, dubbed the Cardiac Cats. Coming out of their bye week, they were 5-3 with home games scheduled with the Lions and Titans before coming to Minnesota. This isn't a team that is going to be easy to beat and, with four wins in the final two minutes already this year, no lead would seem to be safe.
The biggest question mark coming into this game is the health of Byron Leftwich. Leftwich, a big, strong quarterback, has a history of injuries both in college and at the pro level. He is has been sidelined with a knee injury but is targeting his return for Sunday. When he is on his game, he can pick apart a defense with soft touch passes or 60-yard bombs. He won't be mobile, so a strong pass rush is a necessity to keep him from finding a comfort zone and getting the ball deep. If Leftwich can't go against the Vikings, David Garrard is his backup.
There has been no bigger gauge to success for the Jaguars than running back Fred Taylor. When he plays and runs 20 times, the Jaguars win. When he's injured (which has been quite often) or isn't utilized, the Jags lose. Taylor is a slashing runner who averaged 100 yards a game last year. He can grind out the short-yardage plays or break a run for 70 yards. He's backed up by LaBrandon Toefield and rookie Greg Jones — look for Toefield to be the second option — and is joined by fullbacks Marc Edwards and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala — both excellent blockers.
The receivers are once again led by ageless veteran Jimmy Smith. In his 12th season, Smith has been the go-to guy for every quarterback the Jags have ever had and, despite the fact he'll turn 36 in February, he still gets the job done. He's really had little choice, since the Jags never completely replaced Keenan McCardell. They tried this spring by taking Reggie Williams as part of the first-round wide receiver frenzy, but Williams has yet to fully grasp the system, opening the door for fellow rookie Ernest Wilford and veterans Troy Edwards and Jermaine Lewis. Look for all of them to see time and potentially catch passes. Tight end Kyle Brady is a solid in-line blocker and is dangerous in the red zone, as is journeyman Todd Yoder, who finds his way into the box scores a handful of times each year with 1- or 2-yard TD receptions.
The offensive line has been built over the last couple of seasons and now ranks among the best in the AFC. At the tackles, Ephraim Salaam is a free-agent signee and Maurice Williams is a fourth-year former second-round draft pick. At guard, second-year pro Vince Manuwai and free agent Chris Naeole flank center Brad Meester — a second-round pick in 2000. Naeole is the old man of the bunch and he's still 29 years old. This is a group that, if healthy, could be together for years.
The defense is a tale of good news, bad news. The good news of the defensive front is that Marcus Stroud and John Henderson — a pair of former No. 1 draft picks — are a dominant presence inside. The bad news is at end. Heading into training camp, the intention was to have Hugh Douglas and Paul Spicer at end. But that didn't work out. Instead, waiver pickup Rob Meier and converted linebacker Greg Favors are the DEs of choice. They're speedy, but should be swallowed by Bryant McKinnie and Nat Dorsey.
At linebacker, the Jaguars have depth. The bad news is that some are playing out of position. With Favors moving to the line, Akin Ayodele moves from weak to strong side. Mike Peterson remains in the middle, but backup MLB Daryl Smith has been moved outside. The team has quality depth in Tommy Hendricks and Tony Gilbert, but the shuffling of positions has had a ripple effect when it comes to continuity.
The secondary is also a mixed bag. The good news is at safety, where Donovin Darius and Deon Grant compare favorably to any safety tandem in the league. Both are big hitters with the speed of corners and the ability to pick off passes. The same might not be said at corner, where former Viking Dewayne Washington and Rashean Mathis bring good athleticism but a propensity for being burned. Juron Bolden gives the Jags a solid nickel back, but this is a group that Daunte Culpepper will test often.
With both the Vikings and Jags convinced they're going to steamroll in December to a division title, a win here is critical for both. If the game is close at the end, it will likely favor Jacksonville. They are the Cardiac Kids of 2004 and the Vikings hope to have them flat-lining by the time the final few minutes of the game are being played.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
RANDY MOSS VS. BYRON LEFTWICH — Perhaps the two greatest stars for each team, both have some striking similarities that, despite them never being on the field at the same time, make them the matchup to watch a week from Sunday.
Both players helped put Marshall University on the map — first Moss and, five years later, Leftwich. Both were first-rounders who fell further than they should — remember that botched draft-day trade with Baltimore that allowed Leftwich to fall to the Jags when the Vikings "passed" on their pick? But, for the purposes of this particular game, injuries are what ties the two players together.
The Vikings have been forced to play without Moss — either with him sitting or used merely as a decoy — for a month and the expectation is that he will finally be back at full speed when the Vikings play the Jaguars. You can bet that Daunte Culpepper will not only be happy to see him back, but eager to get him back in as the focal point of the offense and the recipient of Culpepper's numerous long bomb throws.
On the other side of the coin, losing Leftwich for three weeks (two games) has come as a blow to the Jags offense. Like Culpepper, Leftwich tried to convince coaches and trainers he could play through his injury, but the staff shut him down. He, too, will be chomping at the bit to get back into action and attack the Vikings secondary.
Two teams. Two star players. One football. Whichever one can shake off the effects of his injury better and make the contribution his team so badly needs will likely make the difference in the game. Even though they won't be in direct competition — except on the scoreboard — Moss and Leftwich are the M*A*S*H matchup to watch.
Leftwich, Jags Looking To Stay In Playoff Hunt
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