Jaguars hope to close in on playoffs, Panthers try to stay alive in NFC race Print
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Thursday, 06 December 2007 11:49
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 JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor remembers being in a similar position last season.
All the Jaguars needed was to win two games in the final quarter of the season to make the playoffs for a second straight year. Instead, they lost three of their last four and ended up out of the postseason picture.
Taylor doesn't want it to happen again.
``We can't slip up like we did last year,'' Taylor said. ``We know the opportunity's right in front of us. ... Looking back at all of that, you try to learn from your mistakes and hope and play as hard as you can so it doesn't happen again.''
The Jaguars (8-4) begin another stretch run Sunday against the Carolina Panthers (5-7), who are 0-3 against the AFC South and need a victory to avoid falling farther back in the NFC playoff race.
The Panthers snapped a five-game losing streak last week by beating San Francisco 31-14, giving them hope they can still turn things around.
``Last week, we were down and out,'' Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams said. ``People were kicking us and poking us with a stick to see if we were alive. We got our life back last week and we're revitalized and ready to go.''
The Panthers may have shown some life while moving a game back in the wild-card race, but they face probably the toughest closing stretch in the league: Jacksonville and then division leaders Seattle, Dallas and Tampa Bay.
``I've been playing this game for a long time and I've seen some teams ... even teams that I've been on ... who looked like they were out of it and wound up winning their division,'' quarterback Vinny Testaverde said. ``You just have to keep plugging away and believing that you'll have an opportunity at the end. If we can just take care of our business, that's all we can control.''
The Jaguars blew their only realistic shot at winning the AFC South with a 28-25 loss at Indianapolis last week. Now, they are resigned to earning a wild-card berth - either the No. 5 or 6 seed - and going on the road in the playoffs.
But after stumbling to end last season, players and coaches are wary of looking ahead or even talking about their postseason chances.
``We want to play our best football in the month of December because doing so will allow us to earn a spot in the postseason, and then we'll hit the postseason ready to get something done,'' Jags coach Jack Del Rio said. ``We're three-quarters of the way through the season and we have put ourselves in a position to be in this discussion, to have this opportunity, and now we need to put the pedal down.''
That certainly didn't happen last season.
Jacksonville hammered the Colts 44-17, then dropped three straight to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Quarterback David Garrard played three of his worst games of that season, getting sacked seven times, throwing four interceptions, losing two fumbles and eventually getting benched in the finale.
Garrard has been far more efficient since, and his emergence is a big reason the Jaguars are in position for the playoffs.
``It's something for me, for this offense, to learn from,'' Garrard said. ``If you look back at those games, there were plays I was trying to do a little more on. I just think I've learned I don't have to do everything. I don't have to try to make all the big plays.''
Carolina, which has won six of its last eight road games, hopes to make some big plays Sunday.
Jacksonville has allowed a league-worst 47 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the most telling sign of a defense that has struggled to pressure quarterbacks without blitzing and has gotten inconsistent play from rookie safety Reggie Nelson and aging veteran Sammy Knight.
The Panthers surely will try to take advantage with speedster Steve Smith, who hasn't scored a touchdown in the last six games.
Against the 49ers, Carolina opened with a direct snap to Smith, a reverse to Smith and a hook-and-lateral play between Smith and Williams. The tricky plays helped spark an offense that was mostly dormant since starting quarterback Jake Delhomme was lost for the season.
``Steve Smith's always a challenge,'' Del Rio said. ``They get him the ball on flea-flickers, bubble screens, direct snaps, reverses. They get it to him every way you can, and he is certainly somebody that we'll have our eye on.''
If not, the Jaguars could be eyeing another late-season collapse.
``If we don't beat them, we've got a harder battle to fight,'' Taylor said. ``If we beat them, it becomes just a smidgen easier in a sense. But then again, the AFC playoff race is so narrow right now. We can't slip up.''

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