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Jags roll the dice

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Fred Taylor has discovered an interesting good luck charm for his next trip to Las Vegas: Jack Del Rio.

"I'm definitely taking him with me this offseason to Vegas," the Jacksonville Jaguars running back said of his coach. "After what we've done this season, oh yeah."

In NFL terms, Del Rio and the Jaguars have basically hit the number in roulette three straight times this season. As a result, the team went 11-5 and is considered the strongest dark horse among the four wild-card teams. Visiting Jacksonville was a two-point favorite for Saturday's AFC wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in one betting line, interesting odds even though the Jaguars won their earlier this season and beat the Steelers last season.

Here's the trifecta that helped them reach the postseason:

In the offseason, Del Rio fired offensive coordinator Carl Smith, who had 19 years of NFL experience. Del Rio replaced Smith with Dirk Koetter, a guy who had never coached in the NFL.

Del Rio shocked the league when he cut quarterback Byron Leftwich, who had been the starter from the start of the offseason, a week before the season opener and replaced him with David Garrard. That move put Del Rio on the hot seat before the campaign even started.

Finally, the formerly conservative and defense-minded Del Rio has been taken over by the spirit of T.J. Cloutier, a fellow former pro linebacker who is now in the Poker Hall of Fame. Borrowing from Cloutier's aggressive tactics, Del Rio and the Jaguars led the NFL in fourth-down attempts and conversions.

They also lead by a stunning margin.

The Jaguars have gone for it on fourth down 33 times this season, an average of more than two per game – more than doubling the average (16.1) through the rest of the league.

This is a huge philosophical shift for Del Rio. Over his previous three years as coach of the Jaguars, Del Rio had gone for it on fourth down a total of 42 times. In 2003, Del Rio's first season, he went for it 26 times, but the Jaguars were in the midst of rebuilding and were 5-11 that season.

Theoretically, going for it on fourth down is generally not perceived as a strength. Usually, it's desperation. Of the other eight teams to make at least 20 fourth-down attempts, only New England (which had 21 fourth-down attempts) had either a winning record or is in the playoffs. And the Patriots' total was bloated by at least a half-dozen fourth-down attempts made when they were well ahead in games.

The remaining seven teams on the list – New Orleans (25), Oakland (24), Denver (22), Miami (22), the Jets (21), Baltimore (21) and St. Louis (20) – were a combined 31-81 overall.

"The only thing I can tell you is that we just do the things that we think give our team the best opportunity to win games," said Del Rio, whose team converted 19 of those fourth-down attempts. "There are a lot of different factors and sometimes possessing the ball is important, sometimes playing to win a particular circumstance is important. A lot of different factors go into it, but ultimately it comes down to what we think gives us the best opportunity to win the game. That's what the choices have to be about."

Whether Del Rio's aggressive approach remains in the postseason, where some coaches become even more conservative, remains to be seen. However, Del Rio earlier this season downplayed the notion that he has changed. He said it's more about circumstance. For instance, Garrard has been exceptional this season in protecting the ball (only three interceptions), allowing Del Rio to gamble in other areas.

"Everybody thinks I don't want to throw because I'm a defensive coach, that all defensive coaches are like that. But look at Tony Dungy. He was a defensive guy in Tampa Bay and he gets to Indianapolis and they throw it all the time because they have Peyton Manning and that offense," Del Rio said. "You work with what you have and go from there."

That's understandable, but Del Rio still has bucked normal thinking by going for it in a lot of situations where a defensive coach might have played for field position. No game exemplified that more than when Jacksonville won at Pittsburgh 29-22 on Dec. 16.

Down 7-3 with a little more than two minutes remaining in the first half, Jacksonville faced a fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. Perhaps persuaded in part by the bad weather conditions, Del Rio kept the offense on the field at a time most coaches might have opted for the 42-yard field goal in what was expected to be a low-scoring game. Maurice Jones-Drew picked up two yards, setting up an eventual touchdown and a 10-7 halftime lead. The play was also vital because it left Pittsburgh with only a minute for its final drive of the first half.

On the opening drive of the second half, Del Rio continued his aggressive approach. The Jags again faced fourth-and-1, this time from the Pittsburgh 46. The safe play would have been to punt, trying to pin the Steelers deep in their own territory. Instead, Del Rio risked giving the Steelers a short field and a potentially easy score and went for it. Jones-Drew converted again and four plays later, this time at the Pittsburgh 31, the Jaguars called a quarterback keeper to convert a fourth-and-1. The drive led to another touchdown and eventually forced Pittsburgh into more of a throwing game. Overall, going for it gave the Jags two touchdowns where most conventional thinking might have resulted in only a field goal.

"You have to like that approach," Jones-Drew said, talking like a typical offensive player. "You want to get after people and you love it when the coach has confidence in the offense to go get it. I think it makes us more relaxed because we know we're going to get that chance. You hear him say it a lot, 'We're in four-down territory now' and that gets you thinking confidently."

Defensive players have loved the results, even if they are a bit more ambivalent about the decisions.

"Sometimes you're over on the bench and you're nervous and you're thinking, 'No, no, no, just kick it,'" defensive end Paul Spicer said. "But then you realize that (Del Rio) is just showing a lot of confidence in the defense with that move. He trusts we're going to stop the other team even if the offense doesn't get it. You also feel good because when they get it, you get to rest a little more and maybe you get that score.

"Really, it's been good for both sides of the ball and that's why we're where we're at right now."