He's No Lap Cat

Times Staff Writer

Two hours before the kickoff of the Rose Bowl game, Jack Del Rio was exactly where he wanted to be.

Not that he didn't want to be in Pasadena, rooting on his alma mater, but the former USC linebacker was even more content tucked away in his Jacksonville Jaguar office plotting his team's path to the Lombardi Trophy.

It starts tonight with a casual hike through the NFL's version of the Himalayas.

"The important thing is us preparing hard, recognizing the challenge and the opportunity that's in front of us, and playing our best football," said Del Rio, whose team opens the playoffs on the road against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. "Because it's going to take our best."

In his third season as coach of the Jaguars, Del Rio has the franchise in the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season. But keeping them there will be the biggest challenge.

Not only has Jacksonville lost its last three road playoff games, but it's facing a team that has won nine consecutive postseason games -- matching a record first set by Green Bay in the 1960s -- and three of the last four Super Bowls.

But any suggestion that the Jaguars might be in trouble doesn't resonate with Patriot Coach Bill Belichick, who this week scoffed at the notion that a warm-weather team might have problems in the New England cold, or that the postseason experience of his team might present insurmountable problems for the visitors.

Belichick deemed "ridiculous" the thought that the Patriots were happy to have lost their finale to Miami, which ensured they would open against Jacksonville instead of Pittsburgh.

"Talk to whoever thinks that," Belichick said. "Talk to the 12 wins that [the Jaguars] had. Go talk to teams that have lost to them and see what they have to say."

The Jaguars have won their last two games played in sub-freezing conditions, beating the Packers at Lambeau Field last season when they were a respectable team, and winning at Cleveland a month ago.

Jacksonville beat Seattle and Cincinnati at home this season and Pittsburgh on the road. And, although the Jaguars were swept by Indianapolis, those two losses came by a combined 15 points.

The biggest news for Jacksonville this week is that quarterback Byron Leftwich will return after sitting out the last five weeks because of a broken ankle. In his last four starts, Leftwich had five touchdowns and no interceptions. And, against the Patriots, he'll be facing the league's 31st-ranked pass defense.

There have been setbacks along the way, notably a loss at St. Louis and a less-than-impressive one-point victory over San Francisco, but just about every NFL team has had its share of cover-your-eyes moments.

"It was a successful regular season for us because we earned our way into the playoffs," Del Rio said. "You can't unwrap that and make that unsuccessful. It was a successful year. However, we're not going to be content with that."

Just as his team plays solid defense, Del Rio has developed a reputation for being especially defensive at times. The tension at his weekly news conferences is said to be palpable, and he hired a media coach this season to help him improve his skills in that department.

Although he disagreed with the perception that he's "tightly wound," Del Rio said he did have a problem in 2003, his first season as coach, when he felt a reporter was "coming in and wearing me out every day, trying to get me to concede the team was going to be bad, and I just refused to do that."

About this there's no argument: The Jaguars have improved under Del Rio, going from five victories to nine to 12.

It's also true that, despite winning eight of their last nine games, the Jaguars collected all of those victories against non-playoff teams. They are 3-3 in games against teams that are still playing.

All those things mean precious little to Del Rio, though. It's about tonight's game and tonight's game only. He doesn't want to hear about winning streaks, postseason runs, the weight of legacies, and games supposedly already decided before the first kickoff.

He did, after all, watch the Rose Bowl game.

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