- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Byron Leftwich may be the best young comeback quarterback to hit the NFL since John Elway, but he still has a few things to learn. Jaguars trainer Joe Sheehan bet him last week the Red Sox would come back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees to advance to the World Series.
Mr. Comeback blew it. Following his fourth last-minute victory of the season -- a stunning 27-24 upset of the Colts in the RCA Dome on Sunday -- Leftwich came to the postgame interview podium wearing a Red Sox jersey, his debt for losing the bet.
"I lost a bet and I don't even like baseball," Leftwich said. "I thought no way they could come back."
Hey, I'm sure Red Sox fans didn't think you could upset the Colts in Indianapolis, Byron. They should wear Jaguars jerseys. The Jaguars were certainly the underdogs heading into Sunday. They lost to the Colts three weeks ago, 24-17 in Jacksonville. What became apparent Sunday in Indianapolis is, for now and for the future, the Jaguars and Leftwich have the offensive manpower to battle Peyton Manning and the Colts to the final seconds every time they play.
And the Houston Texans aren't far behind. Even with the Titans struggling, the AFC South is football's best division, and coaches better call Chad Johnson for boxes of Pepto-Bismol. Sundays will churn their stomachs because these games are going into the final seconds.
"We now know that we are going to go out there and make it happen," wide receiver Jimmy Smith said. "We know bad plays are going to happen, but we've got to bounce back from them. Plus, we've got the coolest quarterback I've been around. He's out there smiling in the huddle."
Of the two quarterbacks playing Sunday in Indianapolis, Leftwich was the coolest in the final minute. Most experts believe Manning is the best quarterback on the planet because he is. He earns every bit of his seven-year, $98 million contract. But here is the contrast of the two in the final minute Sunday.
Leftwich, with the score tied at 24, drove the Jaguars under unbelievable duress from their own 35 to the Colts' 35 in the final four minutes. He smiled in the huddle. He made jokes about the guts of the offensive linemen. Calmly, he completed passes of 11 to Fred Taylor and 12 to Todd Yoder, and he faced a first for the season -- an easy last-minute situation in Jaguars terms.
"This is one where we knew we didn't have to get a touchdown to win," Leftwich said.
So he had fun in the huddle despite the adversity. At one point, he was down two guards. Vince Manuwai was sidelined with a sore knee and guard Chris Naeole limped off the field with a leg injury. Leftwich himself was breathless for two plays after he bruised his sternum when he was thrown to the ground by a Colts defender. Still, the Jaguars were at the Colts' 30, calming fighting through the chaos with Leftwich in control and having 1:04 to set up the game-winning field goal.
Contrast that scene with the next series after Josh Scobee kicked the game-winning 53-yard field goal with 38 seconds left. Manning was in the face of Reggie Wayne in a disagreement. Wayne pushed Manning back and teammate Brandon Stokley had to step between the two. The series opened with a false start. The Colts were doomed.
"We've got a confident quarterback," Taylor said. "Nothing gets under his skin. Guys realize he's not worried about anything and you want to do what it takes to get the job done."
Manning's still the master. Against a good Jaguars defense, Manning passed for 368 yards by completing 27-of-39 passes. His offense only had 58 plays, but it generated 446 yards and scored three touchdowns and a field goal in 10 offensive possessions.
Still, Leftwich was calmer throughout. He threw one interception, but he was almost perfect Sunday, completing 23-of-30 for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
"All week, you've been wondering if we can do this and do that and questioned whether we can do it against the Colts," Leftwich told the assembled press. "It's not me against Peyton. It's the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Indianpolis Colts. Each time we play each other now, it's going to be a dogfight."
The days of being a dog offense are over in Jacksonville. Sure, they started the season slow. The Jaguars were 3-0, but their offense scored only 35 points. But in the third victory, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave figured out the right way to move this offense. He let Leftwich play more out of shotgun and worked most plays off three- and four-receiver sets.
"I can't tell you whether it was the third or fourth game, but I told offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave we can't be last in passing," Jimmy Smith said. "He said, 'You know what? By the end of the season, we are going to be in the top three.' What Byron does best is work from the shotgun. We are good in three receivers. We have two big targets in our first- and fourth-round picks (Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford)."
After throwing for 391 yards in his first three games, Leftwich has passed for 1,273 yards (318.3 a game) in his past four starts. He's consistently getting to his third and fourth reads and he says he's so confident that he's getting back to the first reads if time permits after following the progressions after scrambles.
And things should only get better. Because the three- and four-receiver sets are sometimes considered finesse, the Jaguars aren't as good as they should be on short-yardage and red zone plays. Four times, the Jaguars penetrated inside the Colts' 10-yard line and came up with three field goals and a fourth-down stop that resulted in no points. They failed on two third-and-1 runs.
"There are still things we can get better at doing," Smith said. "The players realize the importance of these games. We still need to protect Byron a little better. We still got a long way to go. But remember, this Indianapolis team -- next to New England -- is the best team in the league."
The Colts offense pressured Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio into being aggressive with his calls. He went for a fourth-and-goal at the Colts' goal line in the third quarter and failed. After Leftwich hit Smith with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 6:14 left in the fourth quarter to put the Jags ahead 22-17, Del Rio went for two and made it. Leftwich hit Wilford with the conversion pass.
Manning naturally followed by having Marvin Harrison split the middle of Jacksonville's Cover 2 zone for a 39-yard touchdown reception with 3:52 left to tie the score. But Leftwich wasn't fazed -- he just laughed and joked and moved his team for the critical field goal drive.
The last three plays on the Jaguars' winning drive, though, were a portrait of how improved the Jags are in terms of composure. With 59 seconds left, Leftwich shook off the pain in his sternum to stay in the game and make a handoff to Taylor, who had his first 100-yard rushing day of the season. Taylor was stopped for a 1-yard gain at the Jaguars' 29. On third down with 51 seconds left, Leftwich tried a screen but was sacked for a 6-yard loss.
Even though he struggled to breathe, Leftwich made sure he didn't fumble. That left Del Rio with a decision. The Jags were at the Colts' 35 with 43 seconds left. His field-goal kicker was a rookie, but he has 60-yard range.
"We were at the outer edge of what we felt comfortable kicking from," Del Rio said. "Certainly, he's capable of making that, but we didn't want to take a high-risk kick and possibly give them the ball if we got too far out of range. We were being aggressive and going after it, knowing if we got it within range, he could make it."
Scobee made the 53-yarder with ease but suffered a knee bruise when safety Bob Sanders ran into him. Somehow, Scobee returned to the field and pinned the Colts inside their 20 with a hard, low kickoff.
The Jaguars are at 5-2 and lead the AFC South and the Colts by a half-game. But they made a more important statement than just a half-game in the standings. They split the series with the Colts and proved they are now a true division rival. Those treading in the AFC South better beware, because the Jaguars are for real and the Texans aren't far behind.
"No more big dogs," Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson said of the Colts. "It's a new year. There's a new sheriff in town."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With the calm and collected Byron Leftwich leading the way, the Jaguars proved that they're a contender in the AFC South.