If only they could avoid fourth-quarter collapse, their season wouldn't be lost. It happened again Sunday, for the fifth time this season.
The Baltimore Ravens rallied to beat the Jaguars for the second time this season. This one was even more confounding than the first time. This time, the Jaguars allowed the Ravens to march 74 easy yards in nine easy plays in one minute and 23 easy seconds, dealing the Jaguars a 24-21 loss that is the final note in the Jaguars' sad song of a season.
"I feel very badly for our players; the way we fought back. Like so many times this year, when people have been in that position we've been unable to stop them. It's so frustrating to have to talk to these kids about a game we should've won," coach Tom Coughlin said following the loss.
Coughlin was at a loss to explain the Jaguars' most recent collapse on defense. "If you had asked me with 1:32 to go if there was any way we were going to lose, I'd have said no," Coughlin said.
But the trend continues. It has gone like this:
• Leading 14-13 against Cleveland in week three, the Jaguars allowed a Browns offense that had done next to nothing in the second half to drive 66 yards in 11 plays to score a game-winning field goal with 5:13 to play in the game.
• Against Buffalo in week six, the Jaguars were tied 10-10 with the Bills when the visitors moved 48 yards in 10 plays to kick the game-winning field goal with 1:09 to play.
• In Baltimore in week seven, the Jaguars blew a 17-6 lead in the fourth quarter when the Ravens marched 71 and 56 yards for touchdowns.
• A week later in Tennessee, the Titans went 59 yards in 10 plays and scored the game-winning touchdown with just 44 seconds to play.
• This past Sunday, Elvis Grbac joined Tim Couch, Rob Johnson, Randall Cunningham and Steve McNair as quarterbacks who've slain the Jaguars at crunch time.
"They drove the ball at the end of the game when they had to and that's unbelievable," Coughlin said.
It's a trend that began in week two a season ago, in Baltimore. Three times last season, the Jaguars collapsed in the final minutes with the game on the line.
This most recent crunch-time failure cancelled a rousing rally by Mark Brunell and company, who trailed the Ravens 17-0 midway through the fourth quarter. At that point in the game, it appeared the Ravens were on their way to a blow-out win.
Brunell caught fire and, all of a sudden, it was as though the Jaguars had been transported back in time. Brunell was spreading the ball around to Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and Kyle Brady, and the Ravens defense was reeling. A Ravens defense that has always struggled against Brunell and the Jaguars began the process of blowing a 17-point lead, as Brunell moved the Jaguars 71 yards and 87 yards for scores that put the Ravens' playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
With 4:25 to play, second-year linebacker Danny Clark, filling in for injured Kevin Hardy, forced a Jason Brookins fumble Tony Brackens recovered in mid-air at the Ravens 38-yard line.
Eight plays later, Brunell had guided the Jaguars to the go-ahead touchdown, which was scored by Stacey Mack on a three-yard run. All of a sudden, it was 1996 all over again. Then, it was a second-half rally that kick-started the Jaguars to a seven-game winning streak that carried them to the AFC title game. Jaguars players and fans can be forgiven if they had begun to dream.
"The momentum-builder was the no-huddle. We started to make some plays. We mixed the run in well. Stacey Mack did a good job, again," Coughlin said.
Then, the dream became a nightmare.
The Jaguars' soft-zone defensive strategy was ravaged by the Ravens offense. "Obviously, it wasn't the right answer," Coughlin said.
"We're going to have to listen to who they blame this week," said defensive tackle Gary Walker, who has been critical of the soft-zone scheme. "It's almost like they know what we're going to be in," he added of the Ravens. "They ran receivers deep and threw to Shannon (underneath)."
The game-winning touchdown pass went to Shannon Sharpe, who had caught the game-winning pass against the Jaguars in week two last season. In two games this season, Sharpe has caught 13 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars.
Meanwhile, Brunell has thrown for 565 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Ravens this season, but he doesn't have a win to show for his efforts. Sunday, Brunell was playing on a significant right quadriceps injury that seriously hampered his mobility.
"I thought we would win, but 1:30 to play, or whatever it was, is still a lot of time. Being an offense that throws it a lot, we have been in that situation quite a few times and it is a lot of time. You have to give them credit. They made the plays they had to make to win. That's unfortunate for us," Brunell said.
It has been the story of this season for the Jaguars. The previous week, in Pittsburgh, the Steelers made the key plays down the stretch, when Joey Porter sacked and stripped Jonathan Quinn of the ball and Jerome Bettis followed with a 40-yard run on the next play.
This time, it appeared the Jaguars were making all of the key plays. Clark forced Brookins' fumble, rookie right tackle Maurice Williams made a key recovery of a Jimmy Smith fumble, Mack further earned Coughlin's trust by coming up big in the clutch, and linebacker T.J. Slaughter made a critical stop on Brookins at the three-yard line the play previous to Sharpe's touchdown catch.
"I'm much bigger than (saying I told you so), but that guy is my quarterback," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Grbac, who had come under heavy criticism for throwing four interceptions in the previous Sunday's loss to Cleveland. Even Sharpe was critical of Grbac, forcing Billick to put a gag order on his team.
"You know, I guess that's entertaining to some folks, the same kind of folks who buy the National Enquirer," Billick said in chiding reporters.
The Ravens, 7-4, stayed close on the heels of the Steelers, 8-2. Cleveland is 6-4, Cincinnati and Tennessee are each 4-6, and Jacksonville brings up the AFC Central rear at 3-7.
"This time of year, every win and every loss has real ramifications. You can see what it is. You scratch to stay alive and that's what we did," Billick said.
If only the Jaguars were better in the fourth quarter, they'd be alive, too.