The Jaguars were hoping to use Sunday's game as a springboard to a higher level of acclaim. They'll get another chance in the playoffs.
This day belonged to the Indianapolis Colts, as every day has belonged to the Colts this season. Their 26-18 win over the Jaguars at Alltel Stadium clinched the AFC South title and homefield throughout the playoffs, and now the Colts face decision time about whether or not to go all out in pursuit of an undefeated season.
"We'll talk about it," Colts coach Tony Dungy said when asked about resting his starters in the final three games of the regular season. "But like I said, next week is a game we want to win. We definitely want to play well at home. That's what we've done all year; not look too far ahead, just look at the next game and that's what we'll do."
The next game for the Colts is a visit from the San Diego Chargers, which will be followed by a trip to Seattle. Those are the two games that separate the Colts from an undefeated season, unless, of course, you really believe that "any given Sunday" stuff. The Colts will finish the regular season at home against Arizona.
Jacksonville fell to 9-4 but the Jaguars' final three games are against the 49ers, Texans and Titans, three teams with a combined seven wins. The Jaguars would seem to be destined for one of the AFC's two wild-card spots.
"This game really didn't have much to do with the playoffs. It's a stumbling block we can get over," Jaguars defensive end Reggie Hayward said.
What's difficult for the Jaguars and their fans to digest about Sunday's game is the manner in which it began. The Colts dominated early, going 89 yards in 11 plays on their first possession of the game.
By halftime, Peyton Manning had thrown for 241 yards, two touchdowns and a 144.0 passer rating, as the Colts led 17-3. When the Colts' first three possessions of the second half all ended in field goals, there was little doubt about the outcome of the game.
"It's a good football team. They've earned their way to undefeated," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
If the Colts' first touchdown drive wasn't the turning point in the game, then a drive that carried to the Jaguars five-yard line but didn't produce any points may have been the game's emotional turning point. It was a drive in which the Jaguars were flagged for three personal fouls, beginning with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Del Rio for being too animated in registering a "coach's challenge." As it turned out, Del Rio lost the "challenge," then had 15 yards tacked on.
Later in the drive, linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive tackle John Henderson were each flagged for "unnecessary roughness." The Colts, however, let the Jaguars off the hook on a fake field goal play that resulted in tight end Justin Snow dropping a pass in the end zone.
"I don't want to end up with a penalty, ever. That was a point where we had to collect ourselves and we did. I thought the Jaguars collected themselves there and kept fighting," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars did their best fighting in the fourth quarter, as quarterback David Garrard got hot and led the Jaguars on two late-game touchdown drives. He ran five yards for one and threw one yard to Jimmy Smith for the other, then ran for the two-point conversion.
Trailing by eight points with 1:54 to play and all three times out remaining, Del Rio decided against an onside kick attempt. The Jaguars kicked the ball away and the game came down to a third-and-seven play Manning converted with a 12-yard pass to tight end Dallas Clark.
"We had to have a defensive stop. We were one play away from getting the ball back," Del Rio said.
"With that offense they have, you don't want to be on the sideline, you want to be on the field," said Garrard, who finished the game with 26 completions in 35 attempts for 250 yards, one touchdown and a 103.3 passer rating.
"I thought David Garrard played very well. He was under a strong rush but wasn't sacked. Jimmy (Smith) had a bunch of catches. Sacking Peyton's not an easy thing to do and we did that twice (Hayward had both)," Del Rio said. A third sack was the result of Manning falling down.
The Jaguars' failures can be traced to three areas: 1) The inability to run the ball effectively. 2) Three fumbles; two by tight end Kyle Brady and one by Garrard near the goal line in the fourth quarter. 3) An atypically poor performance by the defense, which allowed the Colts 399 total yards and eight minutes more time of possession.
"There's a lot of fight in our football team. Understand it's just one game. We have three games left and two of them are here," Del Rio said.
"It looks favorable," Jimmy Smith admitted, "but we've seen that all games are tough.
"They've been making a statement all year long. They're a good football team; small, fast, finesse football team. They're the best team in the NFL," Smith said of the Colts.