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Quarterback draw

Confident Leftwich insists deck isn't stacked against him

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There is no one calmer about playing in his first NFL playoff game than Byron Leftwich. There is no one more confident in his decision to go with Leftwich over David Garrard at quarterback than Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. There is nobody more emphatic that there is no quarterback problem on the team than Jimmy Smith.

''We're just happy about life right now," said Smith, the Jaguars' veteran receiver. ''We're just trying to hold it all in right now.

''As for the quarterbacks, Byron's arm is a lot stronger. It has more zip. If I'm running a 20-yard out route, Byron has the arm to get it there on time. David doesn't have as strong an arm but he brings other things to the position, like his mobility.

''I'm very happy with our quarterback situation, no matter who's in there. I feel confident the quarterback situation won't be the problem."

Del Rio is being second-guessed by some for benching Garrard, who went 4-1 as the starter, and going to a rusty Leftwich, who has not played since Nov. 27, when he broke his right ankle. But Del Rio stood his ground yesterday when asked whether it was fair to send out Leftwich against the Patriots when the playoffs begin this weekend.

''It's an interesting way of looking at it," he said. ''I focus on preparing our guys to go out, taking the best combination of players that I think we can be successful with, and then going to battle and competing. Really, I focus more of my energy on preparation and matchups and things like that and less time worrying about how it's going to be viewed by whoever."

Leftwich started practicing again last week. According to him, it wasn't pretty. In his first workout, he missed three throws and beat himself up about it. But since then, he says, he's corrected things. He said he hasn't shown any rust and feels it is a good test in practice going up against a top-10 defense.

He knows, of course, that it can't simulate the actual game. But he does know that he's come a long way in a short time. The bone had to heal on its own, and he revealed yesterday that he also was dealing with a high ankle sprain incurred at the same time.

''I'm like a kid on Christmas Day from the bone part of it," he said. ''I saw the game and looked to Jimmy, and we said, 'We have the opportunity to win a championship, just like everyone else in the playoffs.' "

He didn't hide his desire to get in a few reps last weekend in the season finale against Tennessee, but Del Rio held him out. And after seeing San Diego's Drew Brees suffer a torn labrum Sunday, Leftwich thought better of it.

''It might have been the best thing for me that I didn't play," Leftwich said. ''I wanted to play real bad. After I seen Drew get hurt, I didn't want to play that bad. All year, you practice and you do everything to have the opportunity to play in the playoffs. And we have that opportunity. As a player, you want to play because you don't know how to turn it off and on. You don't know how to say, 'This game doesn't mean a lot.' That's why Coach Del Rio made those decisions for me."

His biggest challenge may be restraining his enthusiasm and adrenaline until Saturday night.

''You don't want to peak on Thursday," he said with a laugh. ''Practice was great. We had a great day today and everything is going as planned. That is what I want to accomplish."

He said his goal was ''to make it through this week with no setbacks." As far as proving to his teammates that he is the better option, that's never crossed his mind. He's received the support of everyone from tight end Kyle Brady to running back Fred Taylor to Garrard.

''I'm a team player, and I support the decision and I'll support Byron," Garrard said. ''This isn't about me or Byron. It's about all of us trying to focus on the game at hand. We're all going through this together. We're excited about Byron getting back."

There's no question about Leftwich's arm strength. ''He's got a rocket," said an AFC defensive coordinator. ''Other than Brett Favre, I don't know of a guy who throws the ball with that kind of velocity."

But his reduced mobility could play into the hands of the Patriots, who often feast on immobile quarterbacks

''I might be a little slower, but as you say, I was slow anyway," kidded Leftwich, who is 6 feet 5 inches, 240 pounds. ''I can't get much slower.

''I'm moving around. I'm doing everything I was able to do before I got hurt. I have some pain. We're only -- what? -- five weeks out? I broke it and I had a high ankle sprain."

When it was suggested that his absence the last month meant Bill Belichick won't have enough current film on him, Leftwich wasn't buying it.

''From what I hear, he's the type of coach who probably has film from me in high school," he said. ''There's a lot of film on me, even dating back to when we played them when I was a rookie."

In summary, Leftwich said, ''I haven't felt this good since May or June. I have no wear and tear on my body. I just have to make sure I'm prepared enough to play."

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