For the second season in a row, Fred Jackson enters the season finale needing more than 100 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season. The fourth-year back needs 108 yards Sunday against the New York Jets.
Rushing for that many yards Sunday will be no easy task against a Jets run defense that only allowed its first individual 100-yard rusher of the season this past week against Chicago. But Jackson needed 150 in last year's finale against Indianapolis to reach 1,000, and ran for a career-high 212.
In a season where team accomplishments had to be re-evaluated by midseason, getting Jackson to the millennium mark has become a team goal.
Jackson has 209 carries for 892 yards and five touchdowns this season, and is the NFL's sixth-leading rusher in the second half of the season (579 yards). What makes those numbers even more impressive is that Jackson has 20 or more carries in a game just five times this season, and has recorded 12 or fewer carries in a game eight times.
Fullback Corey McIntyre cited Jackson's character and work ethic as reasons for his success, and predicted Jackson will reach the milestone again.
"He's an ironman," McIntyre said. "That's a great testament to him because he's a strong-willed, hard-working young man, and it's a great thing that it's about to happen to him again – and it's going to happen for him."
Jackson's 1,062 yards last season came on 237 carries in only 11 starts while running behind a patchwork offensive line in the league's No. 30 total offense. Although he has regressed from 66.4 yards per carry last year to 59.5 this year, Jackson has improved from 4.3 yards per carry to 4.5.
After losing carries to rookie C.J. Spiller and the since-traded Marshawn Lynch early in the season, Jackson had his doubts about potentially reaching 1,000, but said it's an achievable goal now.
"Realistically, I didn't think it was going to be something that I would have been able to obtain because I wasn't playing that much in the beginning," Jackson said. "The opportunity is there and hopefully we can go out and make something of it. If not, it's not something that will be the most devastating thing this season."
Coach Chan Gailey said he gave Lynch and Spiller more carries earlier in the season because they were healthier than Jackson at the time. Now, he said it's clear why Jackson is in the position he is in.
"The guy is a true warrior," Gailey said. "He goes out and plays every week and doesn't just run the football. He leads for us, he blocks for us, he does a lot of things for us – catches passes – he does a lot of things for this football team. Now that I've gotten to know him better and watch him in action, it doesn't surprise me he is where he is today."
Gailey added he is focused on beating the Jets, but will do what he can to get Jackson the milestone if the opportunity arises.
"I'm caught a little bit in between," Gailey said. "If that game's won and he needs four more yards, are we going to make sure he gets that? I hope somebody will let me know and yeah, we can get him the four more yards, but … the thought process is doing what we have to do to win the ballgame."
Adversity was nothing new to Jackson, an undrafted free agent out of Division III Coe College, who played in his first NFL game in 2007 at age 26 after playing in NFL Europa and indoor leagues from 2004-2006.
Even after rushing for 291 yards on 61 carries (nearly 4.8 yards per carry) while Lynch was suspended for the first three games of last season, Jackson took a backseat until re-emerging toward the end of the season.
Jackson, whose yardage (300 in 2007, 571 in 2008) has increased each year of his career thus far, said perseverance is the key.
"It's one of those things where you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out," Jackson said of his past light workloads on game day. "I just tried to move on and help the team out as much as possible. Obviously, I think they had their reasons for doing what they wanted to do and that's their decision. I think as a teammate, with all these guys in there, all I can do is be ready for when my time is called in and I think that's what I tried to prepare for."
Jackson's efforts and abilities have been noted by even the most successful of current NFL head coaches.
"I'd say he's outstanding. (He's) good at everything: good on blitz pickup, a good outside runner (and a) good inside runner," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "It seems like he can always find some space and get a few yards and squeeze through there or power through there. I have as much respect for him as really anybody we've played."
Jackson's teammates agree he is very deserving of reaching the milestone again, and said they don't view a 1,000-yard season as just an individual accomplishment.
"To have a guy get 1,000 yards, that's what it's all about," McIntyre said. "(It means) I've done my job. That will be the highlight of (my) year."
"We're going to do our part to try and get Fred there," guard Eric Wood said. "He's our guy. He makes us look really good. We know he's going to run hard, we know he's going to finish runs hard, and we're going to finish for him. We know it means a lot to him, so it means a lot to us."