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Fighting to the finish

Posted Dec 23, 2012

Close loss to New England Patriots shows that even at 2-13, the Jacksonville Jaguars may not have quit on the 2012 season.

JACKSONVILLE – This editorial will give credit where it’s due.

So, as we sum up the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 23-16 loss to the New England Patriots Sunday, let’s remove it for a moment from the context of a season as disappointing and disheartening as any in franchise history.

We’ll remove it because while Sunday’s loss to New England may have been disappointing, it wasn’t  disheartening, and it wasn’t about worsts. Not even close.

That’s because Sunday was about a team that fought, and showed pride, and no matter what you think of the season as a whole, if you were one of the people at EverBank Field – and indeed, there were a whole lot of people at EverBank Sunday – you couldn’t deny it:

This team played hard. But more importantly, it played well, it played smart, and it played a lot better than most thought possible.

“I am very disappointed for our team,” an emotional Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said afterward. “I am very, very, very, very, very proud of this football team.”

It was how Mularkey said those verys, emphasizing each one, pausing before the next, that gave you an idea that while this one hurt, it also showed him something about this team.

“Glad to be a part of it (the team), proud to be a part of it,” he said. “They (the Patriots) were playing for a bye; we were playing for respect. Our guys, every one of them, showed up today to win that game.

“We walked out of the locker room like we did the first 14; we believed we could win that game. We just came up short again. I am disappointed for them, but I don’t know if I have ever been this proud of a football team in my life. We just came up short. I told them in the locker room afterwards, we are going to go a long way with people like that, with that kind of heart and that kind of character.”

Character? Heart?

It was easy for onlookers to doubt those things in the last month, as the momentum of a close loss to Houston and a victory over Tennessee waned into three one-sided losses to struggling teams, but it was pretty clear the team that played Sunday hadn’t quit.

This team wanted to win, and it wanted to win because while the record says otherwise, there are those who still believe this team is moving in the right direction.

“I call this season the quiet before the storm,” Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. “We’re slowly adding and putting the right people in place, man. It’s a matter of time before we’ll be where we need to be.”

But Mincey, too, said while it was good to hear the head coach talk of pride, he feels as those who follow the team do – that close isn’t good enough.

“I wanted to win,” Mincey said. “A moral victory isn’t good enough for me.”

Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu agreed.

“I think it’s important for us as a team,” Alualu said. “That’s our approach every game. I wish we could have come out on top. We went into this game expecting to win. We came close, but now we have to watch the film, take the good things from it and get better as a team.”

What does the game mean? In the big picture, that’s hard to know. In one sense, a close loss to the Patriots is a good sign. They are as good as any team in the AFC, and the way the Jaguars played was a sharp contrast to the last three weeks in ugly losses to the Jets, Bills and Dolphins.

It was also a sharp contrast to this time last season, when the Jaguars played two teams late in the season still in contention – the Chargers and the Falcons – and lost by one-sided margins in games that really weren’t as close as the score.

It was also a good sign in this sense:

Through much of this season, a fatal flaw for this team had been the inability to overcome adversity. Too often, one bad play had turned into a deluge, and too often, close games had turned into one-sided losses.

On Sunday, there were plenty of such opportunities, and no team in the NFL has the ability to turn a close game ugly like the Patriots. But this day was different. This day, when the Patriots took a 10-point lead the Jaguars quickly cut it to seven, and on this day, when a penalty took away the Jaguars’ best chance to tie, the defense got a late stop and gave the Jaguars another chance.

The problem, of course, was on this day the Jaguars were playing the Patriots, a team good enough to win even when its opponent does things right. The Patriots are elite, the Jaguars are not, and in the end, the better team played better and deserved to leave EverBank Field with a victory.

But while that’s true, it’s just as true that the Jaguars showed something Sunday. They showed that even in a lost season with few memorable moments, that their doubters were wrong, that they haven’t quit, because teams that have quit don’t play like the Jaguars did on Sunday.

The Jaguars weren’t good enough to win Sunday, but they had enough heart and pride to make it close.

And even within the context of a disappointing season, that’s something worth crediting.

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