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A very long night


ATLANTA, Ga. – Well, well, well . . .

Well, we have to start somewhere after the Jaguars' 41-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome Thursday night, so perhaps it's best to start with the obvious and get it out of the way.

It was rough. Really rough. And yes, it was the low point.

In every tough season – and this officially became such a season long ago – you're going to have one particularly brutal game, one in which nothing goes right and everything that has gone wrong all season to put you in a bad situation piles up and produces something memorable in the worst way possible.

For the Jaguars, this was that game. But here's what it wasn't:

It wasn't a measure of the entire season, and it certainly wasn't a gauge for the future.

You'll say, "How can you say that? How can you be blind?" I understand you saying that, and you should say that. After a lopsided loss on national television you should be disappointed and telling yourself you don't ever want to see something like that again.

Certainly, that's what the Jaguars were saying late Thursday.

Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny called it "bad."

Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis talked about finishing strong, and Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert understated it a bit.

"It wasn't one of our best nights," he said.

No, it wasn't, and it would be easy in the quick-trigger, gut-reaction gloom of this post-game to make sweeping, gloomy judgments and to write this off as the summation of this season.

That would be easy, but it would be wrong and the reason for that wasn't how the Jaguars played all season. That makes sense, because in a very real sense that wasn't the real Jaguars that played Atlanta on the NFL Network on Thursday.

The Jaguars this season haven't been what they thought they would be, and perhaps it's true that they haven't been what they should have been, but until recently, they have been a team that stayed competitive, one you pretty much knew was going to find a way to be in it late.

In two of the last three games, it hasn't been the case. And in this case, as was the case two weeks ago on prime time against San Diego, injuries were a big reason, maybe the biggest reason.

This is not to say injuries caused the Jaguars problems this season. That's an excuse the Jaguars wouldn't use, and one they shouldn't use. Injuries didn't hit this team in a big way until the last month, and the reality is the Jaguars' playoff chances were realistically gone before that.

But 41-0 in the third quarter? Twenty-seven nothing at the half?

Injuries are a big part of that, just as they were a big part of a 14-10 second-quarter lead turning into a 38-14 loss to San Diego two weeks ago. The Chargers in that game had talent at the right positions to take advantage of a depleted secondary and score too many points too fast for a struggling Jaguars offense to stay close.

Thursday night was the same story, only quicker, only without the early lead.

The Falcons led 10-0 before the Jaguars' defense – playing without Dwight Lowery and Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox and Will Middleton and Clint Session and Matt Roth and so on and so on – made their first stop. The Falcons punted, and there was a sliver of momentum.

Then, wide receiver Jarett Dillard – returning the second punt of his NFL career – fumbled and on the ensuing play, running back Michael Turner's four-yard run gave the Falcons a 17-point lead.

A week ago, the Jaguars overcame a 14-point deficit, but a week ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers committed seven turnovers. On Thursday, the Falcons committed none, and instead, Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns – one to Julio Jones to start the scoring and two to Roddy White as the Falcons pulled impossibly away.

Afterward, Mel Tucker – as he did after the San Diego game – said the right things. He talked about "Next Man Up," coach speak for "It doesn't matter who's playing, you have to expect to win."

"That's what the expectation is," Tucker said. "They know that."

Tucker said no matter who's playing you can't have the defensive breakdowns the Jaguars had Thursday, that you can't have the passing game breakdowns, you can't have the turnovers.

He's right. You can't.

But what Tucker can't say is what's obvious – that early in the season, before injuries strafed the cornerback and end positions of anything like depth – this Jaguars defense was one of the best in the league. And yes, it was good enough to keep the Jaguars' struggling offense in most games – and that included games against some of the NFL's best teams. It was enough to give the Jaguars hope, even against the best team.

That's not true anymore, and that's no one's fault. It's no one's fault when NFL players get injured. Not even when enough get injured to make this sort of a significant difference.

It has made enough of a difference that it's threatening to effect how people remember this team, and that's too bad. This season has been a disappointing one in many respects, but it hasn't been a season without high points, and to the football savvy, it's not one without hope for the future.

The reality is that before the injuries, the Jaguars were close – closer than many believed – to being good this season. And the reality is that after these injuries heal – next season, obviously – they have a chance to be good in the future, a very real chance. Laugh at that if you want, but it's a young team, one that can and should improve.

Certainly and obviously, those improvements must be made and will take work. Receivers must be acquired. The pass protection must improve. The pass rush must get a little more dominant, even when healthy. And obviously, quarterback must become more consistent, more mature.

That much has been true all season, and Thursday's low point doesn't change that.

Still, as difficult as it may be to swallow, it was one game – one bad game in very difficult circumstances. It doesn't make the season this far worse than it really was.

It doesn't change the possibility of the future, either, even if it does make it a little harder to see.

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