PITTSBURGH – When it was all over, David Garrard stood at his locker and pulled down the brim of his Fedora hat, then carefully adjusted the buttons on his suit jacket. His smile and attire were sharp as ice picks. Pick a gangster, and Garrard's wardrobe summoned him. Al Capone. Frank Nitti. Bumpy Johnson.
"Frank Lucas," he would say, mentioning Denzel Washington's ruthlessly heroic villain in the movie "American Gangster."
The look screamed brash and cocky, from the tilted brim of his hat to the tight knot on his violet tie. But Garrard tried to avoid allowing his voice to match the volume on his wardrobe. The point for the Jacksonville Jaguars – fresh from Sunday's impressive 29-22 road win over Pittsburgh – was to let the victory serve as the exclamation mark. Often enigmatic, Jacksonville discovered a new level of cool in the winter wisp of Heinz Field and now looks like it could be rounding into one of the AFC's most dangerous playoff teams.
"You know what? This is a message to send to the rest of the league," Garrard said. "We're for real."
That much might be undeniable now, with Jacksonville boasting convincing wins against San Diego and Pittsburgh, not to mention sitting in prime position to run the table against Oakland and Houston and finish the season at 12-4. And while that pristine record and a playoff berth is old hat for this franchise, there suddenly seems to be a legitimate balance to this team. While the NFL world outside Jacksonville has annually waited for the other shoe to drop – often because of the game of Chutes and Ladders at the quarterback spot – Garrard has delivered only calming consistency.
He finished with a season-high three touchdown passes and an 87.6 passer rating Sunday, offset by one slightly overthrown ball that turned into only his second interception of the season. Remarkably, Garrard has never posted a passer rating below 82.6 this season. Such reliability is even more impressive in that it finally matches the steady output of a defense that has been producing for years, only to be undermined by offensive turnovers and sinking inefficiency.
But it was even more remarkable to see it on display in Pittsburgh, with the wind gusting all day at 20-30 miles per hour, and under a steady dusting of snow that led to choppy field conditions. Seizing on Garrard's mistake-free play and the running of Fred Taylor – who only seems to be picking up steam – the Jaguars dominated early, then came back to authoritatively close out a win when the defense let Pittsburgh tie the score at 22-22 midway through the fourth quarter.
It was Taylor who carried the load in that final drive, carrying the ball four times for 46 yards and scoring the clinching touchdown from 12 yards out. Taylor finished with 147 yards on 25 carries – his fourth straight 100-yard game – giving him 1,091 yards and four touchdowns this season.
"He's always labeled that he's hurt and this or that, but the last couple of years, he's been running that ball," Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer said. "If Freddy T. doesn't make it to the Pro Bowl this year, it's a travesty. When it comes out, if he's not in it, something is wrong with that voting process. I know we're in Florida, but we do know the right way to vote."
If it weren't for Garrard, Taylor's late-season push might be the surprise of the season. Not only has he stayed healthy and been the perfect workhorse to compliment Maurice Jones Drew, but he's been patient enough to let holes develop with solid blocking from his line and wide receivers. And barring an astronomical flop in the season's final two games, Taylor will likely finish the season with his second-highest yards-per-carry average (4.9) of his career.
"I don't know what's going on," Taylor said of his late season burst, before noting with a chuckle that "the league will probably test me in the morning to make sure nothing is going on."
Perhaps just as amazing as Taylor's output, the defense continues to hold together without some of its best players. Jacksonville lost defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who wasn't having a Pro Bowl-caliber season when he went to injured reserve last week, but who will undoubtedly be missed in the rotation at the tackle spot. Paired with the absence of linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive end Reggie Hayward – who were both inactive Sunday with injuries – the loss of Stroud seemingly would have made a significant dent in Jacksonville's aggressive front.
But the Jaguars looked anything but passive Sunday, overwhelming Pittsburgh's offensive line and sacking Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times. While Willie Parker put up 100 yards on 14 carries, he never had a presence inside the redzone and finished without a touchdown. And when it mattered the most, with Pittsburgh driving in the game's final two minutes, the Jaguars stopped Pittsburgh at the Jacksonville 39 on downs, icing an improbable win.
Once the clock had run out, Jacksonville had what it needed: Proof. Not only is this a playoff-caliber team, but Jacksonville has shown that it is capable of going into a hostile environment in frigid climate and physically beating a team that purports to be master of the grind game.
"If we do have to come back (to Pittsburgh in the playoffs), we know at least we can win up here in the weather and conditions," Garrard said. "It doesn't matter that we're a Florida team. We're built for the cold weather."
Added coach Jack Del Rio, "We know we're going to play in this type of weather in order to advance in the postseason."
Indeed, if Jacksonville advances, it will likely find its way back into a cold locale – either in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or down the line in New England. But with Sunday's win in perspective, that's not the daunting reality it once seemed to be.
"Without a doubt, this is who we are," Spicer said. "We're seeing that we can play with any team, in any place. Beating San Diego and beating Pittsburgh – two physical and tough teams, playoff-caliber teams – for us, it's allowing all the guys to really realize that, you know what, we can be that team. We can be one of the elite teams in the NFL. We want to be where the Colts are at, where the Patriots are at, where Dallas and Green Bay are at."
Mark it down. Jacksonville officially arrived Sunday. With a brash and cocky look, and a game on the field to match.