A wild season of extreme highs and lows may or may not come to an end this Sunday in Houston – a Jaguars win and a Colts loss will send the Jaguars into the postseason – but regardless of the result, Jaguars players overwhelmingly believe the team took a step forward in 2010.
"It's been a good season," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "In the eyes of the critics, we've surpassed everything they thought we could. We're not playing for the playoffs; we're playing for the icing on the cake."
That "icing on the cake" to which Mathis refers is a win on Sunday that would produce a 9-7 record and the Jaguars' first winning season since 2007. Mathis considers that to be the Jaguars' primary goal, the only one they can control, for Sunday's regular-season finale in Houston.
The Jaguars will, however, be playing for the playoffs, too. Should they win and should the Titans upset the Colts, the Jaguars would be the AFC South champions and would host a wild-card round playoff game the following weekend. That range of extreme possibilities, of playing for little more than a winning season to playing for a division championship, is symbolic of the wild ride this season has been.
"Tough, rough," is how running back Maurice Jones-Drew described this season. Through a six-game stretch of 100-yard rushing performances, Jones-Drew was the epitome of toughness, but then a season-long knee injury flared up at just the wrong time, and that's when the season got rough for Jones-Drew and the Jaguars.
"From starting the season with a win to getting blown out in the next two games; we made a run. It was definitely a tough season but it was an enjoyable one," Jones-Drew said.
Jaguars players are not expecting the Titans to upset the Colts this Sunday. There would appear to be an expectation that Sunday's game is the end of the line.
"It's going to be painful to look at but you can smile for next year because you can see we are improving. We left the division out there," wide receiver Mike Thomas said in mixing the bitter with the sweet of 2010. Thomas, of course, delivered the highlight play of the season when he caught a deflected Hail-Mary pass to beat the Texans in midseason.
"This season has been about the team improving and finding an identity," guard Uche Nwaneri said. "We're taking steps. To finish this season would justify a lot of the work we put into it."
Thomas and Nwaneri are two members of a young, developing cast of players that represent the team's nucleus. How many more pieces to the puzzle does General Manager Gene Smith need to add in the offseason for the Jaguars to become a legitimate championship contender in 2011? That would seem to be the number one question heading into the offseason.
"It's a rebirth of identity for me and a lot of guys," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. Mincey came out of nowhere to replace Aaron Kampman at midseason and become the Jaguars' top pass-rusher. In 2010, Mincey was finally given a chance to establish his professional football career and he did just that.
Veteran guard Vince Manuwai is another player who experienced a rebirth. Manuwai was thought to be in danger of being released in training camp but, in the second full season of his comeback from knee reconstruction, Manuwai reclaimed his starting job at midseason and led the Jaguars running game on a tear to the top of the rush rankings. Manuwai, along with Jones-Drew, became the face of the Jaguars running game, again.
"I think we found a few pieces of the puzzle that can be put together real soon," Mincey said.
How many more puzzle pieces do they need?