- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

San Diego and Carolina have been the NFL's most-hyped Cinderellas this season, but Jacksonville might wind up surpassing them both as the season's biggest positive surprise.

After stunning Philadelphia 28-25 last week, the Jaguars are 3-1 heading into Sunday's game in Nashville against reeling AFC South rival Tennessee.

"Let's start thinking about our next game," quarterback Mark Brunell said after the Jaguars' third straight victory. "Let's move on to the Titans. That's what good teams do. We're going to find out if we're one of those teams."

The Jaguars, a postseason regular from 1996 to 1999, certainly have the schedule to return to the playoffs after going 13-19 over the last two years. The 3-2 New York Giants and co-AFC South leader Indianapolis are Jacksonville's only remaining foes with currently winning records.

Jacksonville let six highly paid defensive starters depart during the offseason and replaced them with young players and/or players with lower salaries and wound up with an improved unit. John Pease, who was promoted to coordinator when Gary Moeller was fired after last season, has the defense playing more aggressively. Tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson have five of the team's nine sacks, showing why they were the team's No.1 picks in the last two drafts.

Receiver Keenan McCardell and left tackle Tony Boselli are gone, but coach Tom Coughlin's other offensive fixtures Brunell, receiver Jimmy Smith and halfback Fred Taylor remain and are playing well. Brunell still might be Jacksonville's poster boy, but apparently the running game makes the difference. During the last two seasons, when Fred Taylor started at halfback or backup Stacey Mack rushed for 100 yards, the Jaguars were 7-2. When neither happens, they're 2-9. With the running game ranked ninth, Brunell has been sacked just three times compared to 57 in 2001 when Taylor missed 14 games and Jacksonville was 26th in rushing.

Jets grounded Jacksonville's easiest game was against the New York Jets, a team that went 10-6 and made the playoffs last year. The 1-4 Jets are so bad that after being outscored 102-13 the previous three weeks, they were heartened by losing a late lead and the game to visiting Kansas City 29-25 last Sunday. That's because Chad Pennington, their No.1 pick in the 2000 draft, showed enough in his first start in place of the aging Vinny Testaverde to convince the Jets they've found their quarterback for the foreseeable future.

"He was excited," Jets coach Herman Edwards said. "He brought a little bit of fire to us. You saw that in the introductions with him head-butting guys. I thought he would knock himself out before kickoff. He brings that to the game. We needed that."

Pennington was 23-for-30 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, albeit against a porous Chiefs defense. Wideout Santana Moss, last year's top selection, caught five passes for 65 yards and a score in his first start. Halfback Curtis Martin, New York's longtime offensive mainstay, recovered from the ankle injury that had hampered him the first four weeks to run for 119 yards on 21 carries. The problem continues to be the offensive line, which lost dynamic coach Bill Muir and starters Ryan Young and Kerry Jenkins during the offseason and has been beaten for 16 sacks (compared to 19 all last year).

The defense is even worse. Former top picks Bryan Thomas (2002) and Shaun Ellis (2000) have been dogs up front. Linebackers Mo Lewis, Sam Cowart and Marvin Jones are in their 30s and showing their age, while cornerback Aaron Beasley and safety Sam Garnes have been disappointing free agent pickups. The Jets have allowed 954 rushing yards just 16 fewer than Baltimore did during its 2000 Super Bowl season and they're on pace to surrender 518 points, which would be the second-highest total in NFL history.

The Jets would be winless if not for Chad Morton's pair of kickoff return touchdowns in their opening 37-31 overtime victory in Buffalo.

"We stunk," Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said after the Chiefs game. "It tests your patience. This is the toughest stretch in all of my coaching career."

And while New York returns from this week's bye to face even more inept Minnesota, the rest of its schedule is beyond formidable: Cleveland, San Diego, Miami, a breather at Detroit, and then Buffalo, Oakland, Denver, Chicago, New England and Green Bay.

New men on the block The eight teams playing for first-year coaches are a combined 21-14. The four NFL first-timers Carolina's John Fox, Minnesota's Mike Tice, Oakland's Bill Callahan and Washington's Steve Spurrier are a collective 9-8.

Brother from another planet Philadelphia guard Doug Brezinski not only has more tattoos than your average biker, he has his own piece of the solar system. For his birthday, Brezinski's parents went on the Internet and bought their spacey son a plot of land on Mars.

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