JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You watch the games. You look at the stats. You look at the roster. And every time you think about the Jacksonville Jaguars being in first place in the AFC South this deep in December, the same thought comes to mind.
How is it happening?
How is a team that is minus-36 in point differential, 17th in total offense, 25th in total defense, with a roster filled with young players just now learning the NFL way, sitting atop the AFC South standings with a chance to essentially clinch the division with a victory next week at Indianapolis?
"I ask myself how sometimes when I walk off the field," Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton said.
Take Sunday. They trailed the Raiders by 10 at the half and seemingly had no way to stop Oakland and sensational running back Darren McFadden. So what happens? The Jaguars tie a team record by scoring 21 points in the third quarter, they take a lead, get tied, and then in typical fashion for this season they find a way to pull out a 38-31 victory at Everbank Field.
This time it was a 65-yard kickoff return by rookie Deji Karim that set up the winning score, which came on a 30-yard run right up the middle by Maurice Jones-Drew with 1:34 left in the game. The Raiders had tied it at 31 with 1:53 left and it took all of 19 seconds for the Jaguars to find the winning points.
"It's a team that just never gives up," veteran center Brad Meester said.
This is Meester's 11th season with the team, which makes him the longest-tenured player on the roster. But even he hasn't played a home playoff game. The last time that happened was 1999, but if the Jaguars beat the Colts, who are one game back and already lost to the Jaguars, it will almost assure that that streak will end.
Jacksonville has won games on a 59-yard field goal in the closing seconds, a Hail Mary on the final play, a screen pass for a 75-yard touchdown in the final minute and now a touchdown run less than 20 seconds after the Raiders tied it.
Are they charmed? Their record certainly belies the numbers. But to get breaks you have to make plays.
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"I think you [make your luck]," Knighton said. "Those are guys making plays. It's not anything like God is on our side. It's just guys making plays. However we win, I don't care. We believe we're a team of destiny right now."
The Jaguars make no secret about what they want to do to win. They will line up and run it right at you all day long. They ran for 234 yards against the Raiders, the third consecutive game they have rushed for over 200 yards.
Over the past six weeks, the Jaguars have led the NFL in rushing. It all starts with Jones-Drew. He has six consecutive 100-yard games and ran for 101 against the Raiders. He was the team's second-leading rusher to backup Rashad Jennings, who had 109 yards, including a sensational 74-yard touchdown run that gave the Jaguars life when they were down 10 in the third quarter.
"Whenever you have a two-headed monster like that it definitely benefits you as an offense and a quarterback," Jaguars quarterback David Garrard said.
The Jaguars have turned to the run, which has taken the pressure off Garrard. He threw three touchdown passes against Oakland, but only had to pass for 156 yards to get the victory. That's the Jacksonville formula for success.
Jones-Drew's best move might not have happened on the field. It was his halftime speech. He gathered the team together and read them the riot act, although he downplayed it after the game.
"It was a tremendous speech," Meester said.
|They get a C because Darren McFadden was A+++.|
|They did a lot of good on offense and not a lot of good on defense. A win is a win.|
|By Jim Nasella|
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Jones-Drew said it wasn't anything explosive.
"We're adults," he said. "We really don't need to yell at anybody. This game means a lot, more than a lot of people think. I don't like to talk. It was just something that needed to be said."
I asked Knighton if he had ever seen Jones-Drew that animated.
"No," Knighton said. "It surprised a lot of people. He told everybody to bring it up. And we were like, 'Woo.' When he speaks, everybody listens because he backs it up. He lit the fire."
He is the fire. It's not crazy to put Jones-Drew in the MVP talk. He won't win the award, but he has put himself into the conversation.
After Sunday, Jones-Drew leads the NFL with 1,278 yards, 48 more than Houston's Arian Foster, who plays the Ravens on Monday night. Jones-Drew leads the NFL in rushing per game the past six with an average of 128 yards.
If the Jaguars are to win at Indianapolis, they will have to do what they've been doing, which is a lot of Jones-Drew and Jennings. But they can't run and settle for field goals against Peyton Manning, not with a defense that struggles mightily to defend the pass. The Jaguars will have to run and score touchdowns.
Most players wanted to relish the Raiders victory for 24 hours before turning to the Colts. Knighton was OK looking ahead.
"I think it's the biggest game in franchise history," he said. "We're going up there with a chance to establish our team as the new team in the division. To be the champs, you have to beat the champs."
It's far from the biggest game in franchise history. After all, the Jaguars played in two AFC Championship Games in their first six seasons. But you can forgive Knighton and this young group. They don't know any better. None of these players has ever played a home playoff game.
A victory at Indianapolis can do that for a franchise that needs it and will have earned it -- no matter how lucky some if might seem.
"Obviously they're getting back on a roll, so it's going to be a big game," Jones-Drew said. "It's going to be up there, so we've got to be ready to work and roll."
If the Jaguars win next week, it might end all the talk of how it's getting done and instead focus on the idea that maybe they are better than we all thought they would be.