DENVER, Colo. – Whatever the score, this one just felt different.
And there was a reason for that:
It was because this one was different.
Yes, the Jaguars lost a sixth consecutive game to start the season – this time to the Denver Broncos, 35-19, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. And yes, it was again by double digits. And say all you want about Peyton Manning committing some unusual turnovers and about the avoidable mistakes the Jaguars again made and how a double-digit loss isn't a positive . . .
In a sense all of that is true. But if you say all of that, say this, too:
The Jaguars were better Sunday.
Better than they had been at any point this season. Better than many expected them to be on Sunday. Better than many nationally expected them to be against perhaps the NFL's best team. And they were better than the odds makers and prognosticators expected, too.
That doesn't mean it was enough.
And that doesn't make Sunday a moral victory.
But it does make it improvement, and that's significant because the Jaguars needed to improve after the first five games, but it was also significant because Head Coach Gus Bradley has been preaching improvement.
But here's what was maybe most significant:
That with improvement didn't come satisfaction. Not even close.
"It was progress, but it wasn't enough," Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew said.
"We're moving in the right direction – that's obvious," middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "Now, we have to clean up all the little things that continue to hold us back."
If there was a prevailing theme among the Jaguars after the Broncos pulled away from a two-point third-quarter lead with two efficient, hope-killing, touchdowns at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth quarter, that was it.
The improvement Sunday was real. Chad Henne played effectively at quarterback at times. Jones-Drew ran effectively for a second consecutive week, running with power and bursts behind a line that allowed just two sacks as it continued to adapt to new personnel.
Most memorable and most significantly there was Justin Blackmon:
Blackmon caught five passes for 136 yards and a touchdown last week in his first game back after a four-game, season-opening suspension. He showed in that game real signs of having improved from his rookie season, a season in which he started slow and showed flashes late.
On Sunday, Blackmon was about a lot more than flashes.
Henne, who showed a willingness and eagerness to feed Blackmon the ball early and often last year, fed him early and often Sunday. Blackmon caught seven passes for 82 yards in the first half. The Jaguars trailed 14-12 at that point, having cut into an early 14-0 lead with two field goals by Josh Scobee and a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown by middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, and Bradley told Blackmon that what he had done was great, but he needed more.
Blackmon gave it, finishing with 14 receptions for 190 yards. It was the third-highest reception total in team history, and the most since 2000. It was the fifth-highest yardage total in franchise history.
More significantly, it showed again what appeared to be the case in training camp and preseason – that Blackmon, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, may well be developing into a player worthy of that selection, a player on whom the Jaguars can rely to beat not only single-, but double-coverage and a player for whom teams must game plan.
Blackmon may be developing into a core player, and on a team that needs core players as it begins this building process under Bradley and General Manager David Caldwell, that's a significant first-half-of-the-season development.
On Sunday though, Blackmon's effort wasn't enough.
It wasn't enough because although the Jaguars did a strikingly effective job harassing and effecting Manning, the Broncos' quarterback is still one of the best ever at his position. With the game in doubt in the third quarter, Manning led back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives to start the second half. Moreno ended one with a 1-yard run and another with an 8-yard run.
The 8-yarder gave the Broncos a 28-19 lead, and after cornerback Mike Harris recovered a fumble by Manning at the Jaguars 4, the Jaguars still had the slightest of hopes.
Those hopes got a lot slimmer when Kayvon Webster intercepted Henne and returned it to the Jaguars 41, and they disappeared when Moreno capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown, his third and last of the game.
It was plays such as the interception that kept the Jaguars from a real chance at an upset, and kept Bradley from being overly positive after the game. He spent more time afterward talking about missed opportunities than he did about the obvious improvement made.
And that's significant, too.
Bradley in his first months on the job has coached with a noted positivity. An optimistic approach to building the culture with this organization is based on daily competition, daily striving to get better, and it's the core of his coaching philosophy.
But there has been a subtle tonal change in recent weeks, a tone that definitely could be deciphered on Sunday if you were listening carefully to Bradley afterward.
"Overall, the outcome that we're looking for, it's not where we want to be," Bradley said.
Where Bradley wants the Jaguars to be is the point where improvement and competition yields the desired results. Considering the mammoth roster and cultural overhaul that took place in the last six months, it would have been surprising, even shocking, had that point been reached on Sunday against a quarterback and a franchise that could be playing in the Super Bowl in February.
But considering the progress made Sunday, it won't be surprising if the desired results are reached sometime very, very soon.