- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. (AP) - Quarterback David Garrard was seemingly another bad game away from getting benched, quite possibly for good, in Jacksonville.

Coach Jack Del Rio even said publicly that he was sticking with Garrard “as long as he’s our best option.”

Nearly three months later, Garrard is one touchdown pass away from breaking Mark Brunell’s franchise record and has a chance to lead the Jaguars (8-5) to their first AFC South title.

What’s the difference?

“If I knew that, I would definitely bottle that up and tell nobody,” Garrard said.

Although running back Maurice Jones-Drew has received much of the credit for Jacksonville’s success this season _ he has six consecutive 100-yard games heading into Sunday’s critical game at Indianapolis _ Garrard has been an equally important cog in the team’s rise to the top of the division.

Garrard has 19 touchdown passes and five interceptions in Jacksonville’s eight wins, and one TD pass and seven picks in the five losses.

He’s been even better when he’s asked to do less. The Jaguars are 6-0 when Garrard has thrown 22 or fewer passes this season, not including a lopsided loss against Tennessee in October when he got knocked out of the game early with a concussion.

“He can’t play well by himself,” Del Rio said. “It’s a team game, the ultimate team game, and David would be the first to tell you that it’s a combination of the line doing a good job up front giving him time and the receivers doing a good job getting open down the field and catching the ball. There are a lot of guys doing good things around him.”

It starts with Jones-Drew and the running game, which has accounted for 200 yards rushing in each of the last three games. That kind of ground game slows down defensive ends, freezes linebackers and creates extra space for receivers and tight ends.

It also takes pressure off Garrard, who has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 2,141 yards and a career-high 20 TDs. He also has run for 232 yards and four scores.

“Dave has been exceptional,” receiver Mike Thomas said. “The guy bounced back from adversity. Dave has always showed that he’s a guy that’s going to persevere through whatever challenges come his way. This time, he’s been on the better half of it.

“He’s been playing great. You can look at him and see his comfort level and his belief in his protection and he’s letting the ball fly around. When he has time, Dave is very accurate and a very good quarterback. He’s our guy and we’re riding him. We need him to string us along like he’s been doing.”

With Garrard playing well, the Jaguars have won five of their last six games. Now, they face arguably the most important regular-season game in franchise history. With a win against the Colts (7-6) on Sunday, the Jaguars will wrap up the AFC South and secure a playoff spot for just the third time in the last 10 years.

“This is a big opportunity for the franchise,” guard Uche Nwaneri said. “It’s been a long time since we had a game against the Colts where it’s really going to pretty much decide everything for the division. We’re not going to make this something that takes us out of our rhythm, but we understand what’s on the line and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

So is Garrard, who struggled mightily in consecutive 25-point losses against San Diego and Philadelphia. He was benched late against the Chargers and might have been pulled for good against the Eagles, but backup Luke McCown tore a knee ligament the previous week, leaving Del Rio with few options.

Nonetheless, the Jaguars were so frustrated with Garrard’s performance that they claimed former first-round draft pick Trent Edwards off waivers from Buffalo with the belief that he could end up the starter.

He never got the chance.

Garrard didn’t let it happen, putting up five of the top eight passing performances of his nine-year career. He responded exactly the way Del Rio wanted and even sent a resounding message to anyone who questioned whether he was the right fit for the Jaguars.

“I don’t try to worry about answering critics,” Garrard said. “The moment you’re trying to answer somebody else or please other people, that’s when you’re setting yourself up. I’ve said it before, the same people that smile at your face are the same ones that are ready to jab you in the back. The more you win, the more success you have, the more people will come around and say he’s a pretty good player or they’re a pretty good team. It all comes down to winning and performing.”