In the biggest game of his life, Garrard has to be at his best

Jacksonville's David Garrard avoided interceptions during the regular season, but Pittsburgh stole a pair of his passes in the playoffs. His poise and mobility will be key factors against New England. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard knew what he had to do shortly after the Jaguars' 31-29 AFC wild-card win Saturday over the host Pittsburgh Steelers.

He would savor his team's victory, but he wouldn't let that celebration linger too long. Garrard understood the next round of the playoffs would offer a much tougher test than the one Jacksonville had just passed. And if he somehow struggled for a second week in row, there would be no delight when he walked out of the next opposing stadium he entered.

Now that we know the Jaguars next will meet the
New England Patriots, there are plenty of reasons to think Jacksonville can pull off the upset. The most important, however, is Garrard's play. He's already proven he's capable enough to lead the Jaguars in his first full season as their starter. Now he has to show he can be a consistent performer in the biggest game of his life.

I raise this point today because Garrard didn't exactly impress the other night. He completed just nine of 21 passes for 140 yards. He threw one touchdown pass -- mostly the result of the brilliant open-field moves of running back Maurice Jones-Drew -- and two interceptions. One of those picks came late in the fourth quarter, when Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor snatched an errant Garrard pass and set up a Pittsburgh touchdown that left Jacksonville trailing by one point late in that game.

Simply put, Garrard can't make that mistake against the Patriots. No team in the NFL does a better job of capitalizing on its opponents' errors, and three quarterbacks -- the Philadelphia Eagles' A.J. Feeley, Baltimore Ravens' Kyle Boller and New York Giants ' Eli Manning -- learned that lesson the hard way.

Each threw an interception late against New England and cost his team an upset. "I know I have to be more mistake-free," Garrard said after Saturday's game. "I have to do a better job of protecting the football, making my reads and taking my check-downs. If I don't, then we'll have problems."

There is one reason to think Garrard will be more effective against New England: He's pretty good at playing within himself. After all, you don't throw 18 touchdowns passes and just three interceptions during the regular season if you are reckless. He also has athleticism that can create problems for any defense, especially one with older linebackers like the ones New England uses. If he's able to use that mobility to create positive plays, as he did with a 32-yard run late in that Pittsburgh win to set up the game-winning field goal, the Pats will be flustered.

The key point here is that Garrard has to control the tempo of the game for Jacksonville to win. The Patriots have played four games in which they have trailed in the fourth quarter, and the common denominator has been the play of the opposing quarterbacks. Despite the fourth-quarter errors of Feeley, Boller and Manning, those other signal-callers beautifully managed their games against New England. Garrard has been equally efficient for the Jags all season. He might fling an errant pass every so often, but he always is aware that the best plays are the ones that chew up the game clock.

What makes his decision-making so important in this contest is the fact that New England certainly will focus on taking away Jones-Drew and Pro Bowl running back Fred Taylor. The Steelers held the duo to just 77 rushing yards combined, and that's pretty impressive, considering Jacksonville ranked second in the league in rushing. Jacksonville also doesn't have good enough receivers to threaten the Patriots' secondary, and its defense clearly is banged up.

This is a team that was built to run the ball and defend the run, and right now, it's as vulnerable as ever.

But you can be certain that Garrard isn't thinking about any of that right now. This is a man who spent five years waiting for his chance to lead Jacksonville, and every opportunity he gets is satisfying. He's been discounted and overlooked, and until the Jaguars cut former starter Byron Leftwich at the end of training camp, it seemed as if Garrard would never get his shot. He was the guy who always looked good in spots but never accomplished enough to earn the coach's confidence.

Well, now Garrard has the complete faith of his team. He's led it to 12 wins this year, and he learned a valuable lesson after Saturday's win. "I found out I can make a big mistake and still rebound from it," he said.

What he has to do now is take the next step in his evolution as the Jaguars' starting quarterback. He has to prove that Saturday's performance was just an off night for a man who needs to have his best game ready for New England.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.