JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- David Garrard played last season with "Draft Tebow" bumper stickers floating around town and No. 15 jerseys, the ones in teal and black, scattered in the stands.
They may have been a little threatening then.
They certainly don't bother him now.
Garrard threw three touchdown passes, finished with his best passer rating and helped Jacksonville beat the Denver Broncos 24-17 on Sunday in a season opener the Jaguars called one of the most important in franchise history.
"This was big for us," said tight end Marcedes Lewis, who caught two TD passes. "We really got some juice out of our squeeze."
As for Tim Tebow? Well, the former Florida star made his NFL debut in his hometown and got rousing support. But he was a non-factor in the game.
The Broncos can't say the same about Garrard, who completed 16 of 21 passes for 170 yards. His QB rating was 138.9, besting his previous high set in 2006.
"Everybody in this room believes in Dave and understands he's our leader," Lewis said. "This is big for him. It's big for his confidence. If Dave is going to be great, then everyone else has to be great around him."
Garrard got plenty of help.
Mike Thomas caught six passes for 89 yards. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 98 yards. Adam Podlesh dropped two punts inside the 10-yard line. Tiquan Underwood returned a kickoff 53 yards that set up a field goal.
Maybe the most telling stat: Jacksonville, which ranked last in the league with 14 sacks last season, had three in the opener and hit Kyle Orton several other times.
"You get what you emphasize, usually," said Aaron Kampman, the team's biggest offseason acquisition who was involved in two sacks. "We have emphasized getting after the passer."
Kampman kept the outing in perspective, pointing out that Denver played with two rookies (center J.D. Walton and right tackle Zane Beadles) on the offensive line and had All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady starting five months after knee surgery.
"They had some guys who didn't have a ton of experience in the league," Kampman said. "But they're still NFL players out there."
The Jaguars, coming off a 7-9 season in which they blacked out nine of 10 home games, needed to get off to a good start to keep fans in the seats and eliminate more talk about relocation.
Tebow's debut made a victory even more imperative, especially since some Jaguars fans clamored for the former University of Florida star.
The Broncos wasted little time getting Tebow on the field. The college football icon who grew up in Jacksonville entered on the third play. He gained a yard on a quarterback keeper. He returned two plays later and lined up at receiver. Tebow picked up another yard on his second carry, this one coming in the second quarter.
"It was a learning opportunity for me, an opportunity to get better," Tebow said.
Tebow spent the rest of the game on the sideline. Orton was much more effective -- at least until the fourth quarter.
Orton was 21 of 33 for 295 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Orton's fourth-down pass to Brandon Lloyd in the corner of the end zone was ruled incomplete with 4:41 remaining. Lloyd, who caught four passes for 106 yards, didn't get two feet down.
"Made a lot of plays, but left a few out there," Orton said. "We didn't make enough plays and that's unfortunate."
Orton blamed some of the problems on static he was getting in his helmet, possibly the result of a thunderstorm that moved through Jacksonville and forced a 33-minute delay between the third and fourth quarters.
"Anytime you're on the road in the NFL, you have to be prepared for that," he said. "We put ourselves in the situation to win, but didn't make the plays down the stretch."
Denver might not have been behind had it not been for defensive end Ryan McBean's two costly penalties. McBean was flagged twice for grabbing Jones-Drew's face mask on the winning drive. The Jaguars used the extra 30 yards to move 83 yards in seven plays, capping the drive with Garrard's 24-yard strike to Kassim Osgood.
It was Osgood's first TD catch since 2004 -- maybe the reason he celebrated so wildly.
Osgood was flagged for celebrating, a penalty that gave the Broncos good field position. Orton got them down to the Jacksonville 14, but his third-and-3 pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and his fourth-down throw was a bit wide.
Garrard didn't make the same mistakes.
"Those are the types of plays that we got to make all year," he said.
Jaguars CB Derek Cox was benched in the third quarter after getting beat several times. "Tough game for me," he said. "Some days you're on, and today I wasn't on like I want to be." ... Jaguars won their season opener for the first time since 2006. ... It was the hottest game in franchise history in Jacksonville. Temperatures reached 93 degrees with a heat index of 105. ... Broncos CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman held WR Mike Sims-Walker without a catch.
- Walt Coleman