Were the Jacksonville Jaguars that much of a juggernaut, or were the Miami Dolphins simply that dreadful?
The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in between after the Jaguars' 62-7 rout of the Dolphins on Saturday at Alltel Stadium, the second-most lopsided playoff game in NFL history.
This much is certain: The Jaguars must now be considered a strong favorite to beat the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship game at home before another howling crowd of 75,000-plus Sunday.
Jimmy Johnson, who resigned as the Dolphins' head coach this morning, said earlier in the week he thought the Jaguars had the best talent in the league. Then he found that to be true in the hardest way possible.
The Jaguars opened a 38-0 lead before Miami quarterback Dan Marino had completed a single pass. They scored eight touchdowns, produced 520 yards of offense, forced seven turnovers, blocked a punt and, in short, played a near-perfect playoff game.
Jacksonville had come into only the second home playoff game in franchise history with something of a chip on its shoulder, having heard weeks of dismissive talk about the weakness of its schedule. Not a single victory came against a team with a winning record.
"I don't pay a lot of attention to that [criticism], to be honest with you," Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin insisted earlier in the week. "I know what we have here. The league tells us who to play. You don't win 14 games by being any less than a good football team. So I don't worry about what is being said by the media or anyone else about our football team."
Still, after the Miami game, his players made it abundantly clear that they were bothered by sniping over their schedule and doubts about their abilities to go deep into the playoffs.
"Was Miami a winning team?" offensive tackle Leon Searcy asked. "Did we win today? That answers those questions right there. We've been taking lumps all season long about our schedule. Today we took that to heart and did something about it."
Added wide receiver Keenan McCardell: "I said all season long that if we hadn't played anybody yet, then we'd play what you guys call good teams in the playoffs. We'll see how good we are then. I guess we showed it today."
Meantime, the Dolphins showed nothing.
Johnson, who had told friends as long ago as last April that this could well be his final season, goes into coaching retirement following the worst loss of his career. He took full responsibility for the defeat, saying that he worked his players too hard in practice during a short week made even more difficult by the team flying all night last Sunday from Seattle after an opening-round upset of the Seahawks.
Even a fresh Dolphins team would have had extreme difficulty against the Jaguars.
While the 38-year-old Marino insisted that he still believes he can win games in the NFL, a longer self-examination in the mirror will reveal a quarterback whose arm strength has clearly been diminished by neck problems that forced him to miss six games this season.
The Dolphins face a long-term rebuilding project, another reason Johnson probably decided to cut his losses and get out now.
"I would have bet my whole year's check that they would not have scored that many points," said Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "I guess I would have been broke."
The Jaguars had an embarrassment of riches on Saturday. Starting quarterback Mark Brunell, coming back after a sprained knee suffered against the Titans three weeks ago, reported no problems save for a lack of mobility caused by two heavy braces on both knees. With his team comfortably ahead, he was able to leave early in the second quarter.
Running back Fred Taylor, bothered by hamstring problems all season, also sat out the entire second half after rolling up 135 yards on 18 carries, including a team record 90-yard touchdown run. His backup, James Stewart, played on a sprained ankle, but should be available next week. Ben Coleman, playing left tackle in place of injured Pro Bowler Tony Boselli--out for the playoffs with a torn ligament in his right knee--acquitted himself well against the Dolphins. The Jaguars emerged with no new injuries.
Coughlin, meantime, will have no problem getting his team motivated to play the Titans, who got five touchdown passes from quarterback Steve McNair the last time these teams met. And after beating Jacksonville twice, Tennessee faces long odds of winning three games in one season against such a formidable foe.
"We proved the critics wrong," said Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who had two touchdown receptions among his five catches. "But we can't come out next week and stink up the field. Not when we're this close."