Finally, there's a Super Bowl dark horse worthy of the title.
So many times this season, we've suggested the Jaguars would fall apart. Whether it was the season-ending injuries to defenders Reggie Hayward, Mike Peterson or Donovin Darius, or the struggles of offensive players Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, there has always been a reason to doubt. But since quarterback David Garrard took over starting duties, the Jaguars have gone 5-2, and beaten three teams factoring into the playoff hunt (Philadelphia, Indianapolis and the New York Giants) and two teams on second-half hot streaks (Tennessee and Miami). Now, fresh off a spanking of Indianapolis, the Jaguars have cracked the top five in the power rankings. With Garrard and the two-back rotation peaking, and a defense holding opponents to an average of 13 points per game in the last nine outings, this is quickly becoming the team nobody wants to face in the first round of the AFC playoffs.
Here is a look at how the rest of the league stacks up heading into Week 15.
THE TOP 12
1. San Diego Chargers (11-2) – Following Sunday's results, a Chargers-Saints Super Bowl doesn't look out of the question. Forget the number of points that matchup could produce (100?). Raise your hand if you'd like to see quarterback Philip Rivers and his teammates face former Charger Drew Brees.
2. Baltimore Ravens (10-3) – Of all the AFC Super Bowl contenders, this is the one that could most use a bye before the playoffs. The wear and tear on guys like running back Jamal Lewis, quarterback Steve McNair and linebacker Ray Lewis have taken a toll.
3. Chicago Bears (11-2) – Cornerback Devin Hester, defensive end Mark Anderson and safety Danieal Manning weren't first-round picks, yet Hester and Anderson could be Pro Bowlers at season's end. Manning will be an All-Rookie pick, too.
4. New Orleans Saints (9-4) – For all the talk about the players, coach Sean Payton's staff has had amazing chemistry. Not bad for a group of guys that really seemed to lack name recognition before the season.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) – If not for all those dropped passes in that flop against Buffalo in Week 12, this would be the hottest team in the NFL – outside of San Diego. It's no coincidence that this team has righted itself and gone 3-1 since the return of defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.
6. Indianapolis Colts (10-3) – If this team loses its shot at a bye and folds early in the playoffs, you have to wonder if coach Tony Dungy's job might be in jeopardy. Hard to believe, but this team is stuck in a rut and getting worse.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (8-5) – All the talk about the improving defense is a little hollow coming on the heels of games against Oakland, Baltimore and Cleveland. With an early playoff draw against the likes of New England in the first round and San Diego in the second, this team will have to show this week it can slow down the Colts.
8. New England Patriots (9-4) – Having already lost linebacker Junior Seau for the season, the latest injuries to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson could be devastating. And since quarterback Tom Brady's hot start (14 touchdowns and four interceptions in a 6-1 start), he's been below average (six touchdowns and eight interceptions in a 3-3 run).
9. Dallas Cowboys (8-5) – The Tony Romo bandwagon is getting lighter, but this was bound to happen. Now it's his turn to adjust. However, the lack of a defensive pass rush and the cement-footed safeties are bigger long-term worries.
10. Seattle Seahawks (8-5) – With opponents averaging slightly over 22 points a game this season and the fourth-quarter letdown against Arizona, the overall defense has been a disappointment. Particularly the defensive line, which hasn't provided the playmaking expected this season.
11. New York Giants (7-6) – With his ankle flaming up after only the slightest pressure and five straight weeks of inactivity, defensive end Michael Strahan's season might be done. Quarterback Eli Manning didn't make any of the big errors against the Panthers, but he's still missing easy passes. The more you watch him, the more you realize that he might have been helped by having a veteran presence like a Trent Dilfer sitting behind him and serving as a mentor.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) – Watching the replays of wide receiver Mark Clayton's back-breaking touchdown catch, cornerback Ty Law sure went out of his way to make it look like the busted play was safety Greg Wesley's fault. Law's not fooling anyone. He's just another slightly above average cornerback.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-6) – They are still in the playoff hunt, though I find that quite shocking. I'm not buying quarterback Jeff Garcia or the defense, which was shredded by Washington's Ladell Betts (171 yards on Sunday). Check with me next week after their game against the Giants.
THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)
Arizona Cardinals (4-9) – Wins are nice, but they only push the Cardinals further back in the draft … and away from Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas.
Atlanta Falcons (7-6) – Winners of two in a row, the Falcons are the quintessential pretender: 1-4 against teams with a winning record, no offensive balance and an inconsistent defense.
Buffalo Bills (6-7) – Owner Ralph Wilson made his displeasure known about league owners' 30-2 vote last week to approve a low-interest $300 million loan for the joint stadium for the Jets and Giants. But what did he expect? It's economics and teams in No. 1 markets get the breaks in every major sports league.
Carolina Panthers (6-7) – Stick a fork in this team. With Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans left on schedule, 6-10 looks more likely than 9-7.
Denver Broncos (7-6) – Quarterback Jay Cutler rebounded nicely in his second start, but this team clearly has other problems, too. An every-down pass rusher would be a big addition. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil might never be anything more than a top-notch situational player.
Green Bay Packers (5-8) – Here's a statistical oddity you never thought you'd see with this team: the Packers are 4-3 on the road and 1-5 at Lambeau Field this season. Believe it or not, this team could pull off 8-8 if the Bears sit their starters in the season finale.
Miami Dolphins (6-7) – You have to be impressed with the little move coach Nick Saban pulled on his mentor last week: buying New England game tapes with sound, in an effort to figure out how Tom Brady was calling out his pass protection calls at the line of scrimmage.
Minnesota Vikings (6-7) – Vikings players are lobbying for a Pro Bowl berth for nose tackle Pat Williams. Rightfully so. He might be the best defensive lineman in football this year. If he doesn't get in, there needs to be a new system.
New York Jets (7-6) – Moving quarterback Kellen Clemens to No. 2 on the depth chart should be a clear signal. If this playoff run goes in the tank with another loss, he'll get a look before the season is over.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) – Mathematically, this team is still in the playoff hunt. But let's be honest about this little run. Three of the last four wins have come over Tampa Bay and Cleveland (twice). And what happened with Heath Miller this year? Wasn't he supposed to ascend to the upper tier of NFL tight ends?
St. Louis Rams (5-8) – The overwhelming throngs of Chicago fans jamming the Edward Jones Dome on Monday night had to be embarrassing for Rams brass. And there might be more bad news on the way: rumblings about defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and the University of Alabama are growing louder.
San Francisco 49ers (5-8) – Coach Mike Nolan is solidly behind him, but quarterback Alex Smith's regression (47-percent passing and seven interceptions in three weeks) is troubling. Getting the offense's two highest-paid skill position players (Smith and tight end Vernon Davis) on the same page heading into the offseason is more important than anything else over the last three games.
Tennessee Titans (6-7) – The game-winning run against Houston was stunning, but quarterback Vince Young's progression as a passer over the last three games has been more impressive than anything. And though offensive coordinator Norm Chow pulled himself out of the N.C. State sweepstakes, the Titans might have to give him a raise to keep him in the long term.
Cleveland Browns (4-9) – This team just can't catch a break with the staph infections and injury problems. Don't be surprised if the issues with center LeCharles Bentley, who suffered a left knee injury on the first day of training camp, turn out to be career-threatening.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
28. Washington Redskins (4-9) – How's this for a defense that's gone from pristine to pitiful: Washington is on its way to forcing the fewest turnovers ever during a 16-game season.
29. Houston Texans (4-9) – Quarterback David Carr has thrown one touchdown pass in the last seven games. Meanwhile, Vince Young's game-winning run is officially the low point of the season for this franchise.
31. Oakland Raiders (2-11) – Of all the years to be staring at the No. 1 pick in the draft, this isn't a great one. Does this franchise really want to pay quarterback Brady Quinn a guaranteed $30 million?
32. Detroit Lions (2-11) – It's remarkable how players – such as quarterbacks Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia, and running back Artose Pinner – seem to leave this franchise and suddenly start playing better. Team president Matt Millen has stolen enough money. If he cares about the Ford family like he says he does, he should do the right thing and walk away.