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Start of a critical stretch

Posted Dec 1, 2012

Brad Meester, Cecil Shorts and others agree: for Jacksonville Jaguars, road game against Buffalo Bills Sunday is the start of an important stretch

No way, no how is the season over.

The schedule says as much, but center Brad Meester said this week what’s notable around the Jaguars is that it’s more than just there being more than a month remaining in the 2012 NFL regular season.

The belief inside the organization, from players to coaches to front office remains strong:

The last five games matter. A lot.

“I keep saying, it goes back to the type of guys we have here,’’ Meester said as the Jaguars (2-9) prepared to play the Buffalo Bills (4-7) at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday at 1 p.m. “Obviously, we’re not going to make the playoffs this year. A lot of teams would say, ‘Let’s pack it in. Let’s get done.’ This is not that type of group.”

Rather, it’s a group that has newfound energy, one that has built momentum in the last two weeks, and one intent on keeping that momentum going.

“The last five games are big for us,” wide receiver Cecil Shorts said. “We want to finish on a good note. We want to take the momentum we have now, keep it going and try to get it going into next year. To end on a good note would be great for this team.”

That has been evident in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, the Jaguars were 1-8, having lost six consecutive games. They were struggling at home, having lost all five games there, including back-to-back losses in a five-day stretch to Detroit and Indianapolis. Up next was a road game against the Houston Texans.

The *8-1* Houston Texans.

Early in that game, the Jaguars trailed 7-0 and second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert was lost for what turned out to be the season with a forearm injury.

Chad Henne entered the game at quarterback, throwing for 354 yards and four touchdowns, and along with that, wide receivers Justin Blackmon and Shorts began to emerge as two of the better young receivers in the AFC.

Blackmon caught seven passes for 236 yards – the third-highest receiving yardage total for a rookie in NFL history – against the Texans, and the Jaguars lost that game in overtime, 43-37. That was the Jaguars’ highest points total of the season.

The Jaguars this past week scored 24 points – the second-highest total of the season – and beat the Tennessee Titans, 24-19, at home.

Suddenly, what was a team struggling to find a way to win became one feeling good about itself, and trying to build on positives.

“The last couple of games have been pretty good,” Meester said. “This is a chance for us to keep moving in that direction.”

Henne threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans, with Blackmon and Shorts each catching a touchdown, and the result was an unmistakable momentum, one felt by the players this week as they prepared for the first of four consecutive games against AFC East opponents.

“We’re still fighting to the end,” Shorts said. “That’s what (Head) Coach (Mike) Mularkey was talking about. I guess some people asked him, ‘Are you going to play some younger guys?’ Coach is like, ‘we’re going to play to win every week.’ Guys respected that.”

Russell Allen, the Jaguars’ fourth-year linebacker, said there is really only one way to explain why players have bought into the idea of playing hard until the end of the season.

“We have a great group,” Allen said. “We have since Day 1. There was never a moment, even during the losing streak, that we were like, ‘Let’s just . . .’ It was always, ‘This is the week.’ We got one last week, and that just validates what we’ve been doing. They’re all important. This is the NFL. You only get so many chances. We want to represent our team, our organization and each other. That’s honestly what it comes down to.

“This is not, ‘Play the young guys and build for the future,’ but it’s about finding out who we have, and to try to win now. You can see that energy is still there.’’

If that wasn’t clear before, it became so Wednesday. That was when the Jaguars claimed defensive end Jason Babin off waivers. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Babin registered 30.5 sacks in 2010-2011 and 5.5 this season, but was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles following their loss to the Carolina Panthers Monday night.

Babin is expected to play extensively against Buffalo.

Mularkey, discussing the move Wednesday afternoon, said it was about trying to improve a struggling pass rush and trying to make the roster better with the idea of trying to win, and trying to do so now.

“The game plan is, ‘We’re coming after everybody,’’’ Shorts said.

And throughout the locker room late in the week, the mood and the words reflected that. No, there may not be a postseason berth awaiting, but to say there’s nothing left to accomplish – you weren’t finding anyone saying that.

“We’ve got five more opportunities to get better for next year,” said Meester, in his 13th season the most-tenured player on the team. “This is a huge chance for us offensively, defensively, to make strides – especially for us on offense. The last couple of games have been pretty good. This is a chance to keep moving in that direction and get ready for next year.

“There’s no better chance to get better than these last few games. That’s the reason we’re approaching it like we are.”

Injury update: running back Maurice Jones-Drew (foot), defensive end Austen Lane (foot) and cornerback Derek Cox (hamstring) have been ruled out of Sunday’s game, while Shorts (groin) and Blackmon (hamstring) will play, according to Mularkey. Shorts and Blackmon missed practice Thursday, but worked limited Friday. Shorts and Blackmon are listed as probable, as are defensive tackle Tyson Alualu (calf), Meester (foot), fullback Greg Jones (thigh) and cornerback Rashean Mathis (groin).

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