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Jaguars: Lots of wins but little recognition

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- ''They tanked it so they could play us. That's what they're saying," said a fellow to a desk clerk at a hotel outside Jacksonville.

The clerk nodded, saying, ''Yeah, they don't think we're any good. They'd rather play us. We'll see."

Whether the Patriots would rather play Jacksonville than Pittsburgh, we'll never know. Maybe the Jaguars need to believe that both the Patriots and Bengals wanted to play them instead of the Steelers. What could be more disrespectful than that?

What is known is that Jacksonville is a 12-4 underdog most of the country really doesn't know that well. Their players and fans are already in full-fledged ''we get no respect" mode, which worked famously as a motivational tool for the Patriots over the last few years.

''If we beat the Patriots, maybe people will shut up about us," said defensive tackle John Henderson after the Jaguars ended their season with a 40-13 rout of the Tennessee Titans at Alltel Stadium Sunday.

They were afterthoughts in the AFC South as the Indianapolis Colts were winning their first 13 games. They didn't play one Monday night game. They may have been lightly regarded because they're a young team that had many ups and downs in terms of consistency in performance, yet their four losses were by an average margin of 7.8 points. Their last eight wins came against teams that finished with a combined record of 27-69.

They have had Byron Leftwich and David Garrard start at quarterback, and coach Jack Del Rio is trying to nip the talk of ''QB controversy" by saying Leftwich will start against the Patriots Saturday night, barring a setback in practice.

The Jaguars are a faceless 12-4 team. The most recognizable names are Leftwich, Henderson, receiver Jimmy Smith, running back Fred Taylor, and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.

Yet their opponents warn to not be fooled by that.

One AFC defensive coordinator said he considers the Jaguars a very tough team because their size -- at running back, receiver, and on the offensive line -- creates tough matchups.

The young Jaguars started turning the corner when James Harris was hired as general manager two years ago. He hired Del Rio and a top-shelf scouting team led by Terry McDonough. The three were thrown bouquets by Bill Belichick in his news conference in Foxborough yesterday.

Harris was the pro personnel director in Baltimore leading up to the Ravens' Super Bowl championship. It was Harris who augmented their fine drafting with veterans Trent Dilfer, Tony Siragusa, Shannon Sharpe, Ben Coates, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, and Michael McCrary.

McDonough was a big part of the talent-laden drafts in Baltimore, as he is now in Jacksonville. Sixteen players drafted by the Jaguars now start on offense, defense, or special teams.

Del Rio has brought the passion and enthusiasm he showed as a player to his coaching. He also hired several ex-Patriots assistants -- offensive coordinator Carl Smith, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, and receivers coach Steve Walters -- to teach his young players how it's done.

Smith, who coached Drew Bledsoe in New England before moving on to Cleveland and then Southern Cal (where he coached Matt Leinart for a year), has been able to integrate backup Garrard into the offense in a seamless transition despite the contrasting styles of the two quarterbacks.

Leftwich, a pocket passer, has been a mainstay at the position for three years. But the mobile Garrard went 4-1 after Leftwich broke his ankle Nov. 27. There's a rhythm going that might be disrupted with a change. And that's what Del Rio had to wrestle with.

The Jaguars are also deep at running back, with veteran Taylor, the rugged Greg Jones, and LaBrandon Toefield, who gained 102 yards on 25 carries Sunday against Tennessee. They have big receivers in 6-6 Matt Jones, their No. 1 draft pick, and 6-4 Ernest Wilford and Reggie Williams. Smith is shorter but still an effective veteran.

The offensive line can play smash-mouth, as 253 of the team's 502 rushes came up the middle, the ultimate sign of toughness, though the Jaguars have lost arguably their best lineman, center Brad Meester, who is on injured reserve with a torn biceps.

The Jaguars will have to match New England's intensity on the defensive line, and this could be where the game is won or lost. For the most part, the Jaguars protect well. Their quarterbacks have been picked off only six times, an NFL low.

Defensively, the Jaguars have been one of the most consistent units in the league, ranked sixth overall, with a very active front seven that includes behemoth tackles Stroud and Henderson. Hamilton has called Henderson ''unblockable" one-on-one, which is why he so often draws a double-team. That tends to leave plays for Stroud, Richard Seymour's former teammate at Georgia.

The secondary isn't bad, either, with left corner Rashean Mathis and free safety Deon Grant among the best in the league. But right cornerback Kenny Wright came limping off the field Sunday before halftime with a left knee injury and did not return. And the Jaguars must head north to play a night game in cold New England.

If this is the way Bill Belichick wanted it, he certainly did his best to deny that yesterday. But the Jaguars will believe what they want to believe. Whatever shows them the least respect. That's how the Patriots did it.

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