They could've ended the day in the driver's seat for an AFC wild-card playoff berth. Instead, the Jaguars are clinging to slim hope that everything will fall their way on the final Sunday of the season.
It sure didn't fall their way today. In front of a sparse crowd at Alltel Stadium, the Jaguars were shut out by the Houston Texans, 21-0, leaving the Jaguars tied with Baltimore at 8-7 and a game behind Buffalo and Denver in the wild-card chase.
"I don't know where this puts us in the playoff hunt, but until someone tells us we can't go, I'm not conceding anything," coach Jack Del Rio said.
The Jaguars began the day with the belief a win over Houston and a Baltimore loss in Pittsburgh would leave the Jaguars needing only a win in Oakland on Jan. 2 to clinch a playoff berth. Well, the Jags got the win they needed from the Steelers.
Houston, 7-8 and out of playoff contention, played spoiler and the Texans began that performance with a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening possession.
Quarterback David Carr has become somewhat of a Jaguars killer. He is 4-1 against the Jaguars and, though his personal statistics weren't real impressive in this most recent outing, he was effective when it counted most.
Carr completed 14 of 20 passes for 139 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a lowly 66.5 passer rating, but those stats don't represent his control of the game. Carr converted seven of 15 third-down attempts, rushed eight times for 27 yards and made big plays in leading the Texans to a 14-0 lead at halftime.
His 10-yard touchdown pass to Pro-Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson put the Jaguars in a big hole, on a day when his counterpart, Byron Leftwich, was clearly out of sorts.
Leftwich sustained a blow to the head in the first quarter while recovering his own fumble. He left the game but returned on the Jaguars' next drive.
Was Leftwich bothered by the injury?
"I think he was," Del Rio said. "The cobwebs seemed to clear up, but he never got it going today and I have to believe that has something to do with it."
Leftwich completed just six of 14 passes for 35 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 20.5 passer rating. It is his worst performance as a pro.
"I felt OK. I'm not going to use that as an excuse," Leftwich said of the head injury, "but Jack thought I was a little off; that I wasn't there."
Leftwich was replaced late in the game by David Garrard, as Del Rio sought a spark for his offense. Garrard, however, was victimized by a Troy Edwards fumble that was forced by rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson and returned 66 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Antwan Peek. It marked the second return for a touchdown by the Texans against the Jaguars this season.
The Jaguars were playing without star running back Fred Taylor, who was "scratched" with a knee sprain. Rookie Greg Jones replaced Taylor in the starting lineup and gained 38 yards rushing on nine carries. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala carried four times for 25 yards and LaBrandon Toefield gained 13 yards on three carries, as the Jaguars averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
"We ran the ball well enough to be able to move the ball," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars passing game was non-existent, however, and the Jaguars' one-for-10 in third-down conversions left the Texans to dominate time of possession, 38:58 to 21:02.
"You shouldn't have these games this late in the season," Leftwich said. "We understood the importance of this football game. It was very disappointing and it is very embarrassing to play the way we did in a game of this importance."
Though the Jaguars offense was clearly the leader in futility – it marked the first time the Jaguars were shut out in a game since their inaugural season in 1995 – the defense's performance was a major disappointment, too. Texans running back Domanick Davis' 150 yards rushing mark the most by a Jaguars opponent in Del Rio's two years as head coach, and Davis established that fact with 113 yards in the first half.
"They popped some runs on our defense, which is unusual. When you don't tackle well, you can't play the run-defense the way we want to," Del Rio said.
The win marked the first shutout in the Texans' three-year history, and the Texans have gone 11 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown.
"All we want is respect. We didn't necessarily feel like Jacksonville was giving us that. We knew they had playoffs on their mind and we wanted to come in and take advantage of that," Carr said.
"I know a lot of those guys and I respect them. It seemed to me that the guys who were doing a lot of talking didn't do a lot today for them. My motto is to just shut up and play football," former Jaguars defensive tackle Gary Walker said.