JACKSONVILLE – The Jaguars had a very real chance – more than one, actually.
But while the Jaguars rallied, clawed and regained lost momentum – and while they played perhaps their best game of the season – the Jaguars couldn't quite make a big play when a big play was needed, losing to the New England Patriots, 23-16, in front of 70,251 at EverBank Field Sunday.
The Jaguars were dominant early, and they were scrappy late. It was just that on this day, the Patriots were just a little better at the times that mattered most.
"Disappointed," Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said, defining a Jaguars locker room in which most players discussed pride and disappointment in the same breath. "Very, very, very, very, very, very proud of this football team . . .
"Glad to be a part of it. Proud to be a part of it."
The Patriots with the victory stayed in contention for a first-round AFC playoff bye. The Jaguars (2-13) lost a fourth consecutive game, assuring they will finish the season with the most losses in franchise history.
The 1995 expansion team finished 4-12, the worst record in franchise history.
"Overall, I thought the guys fought hard," Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne said after the team's 2012 home finale. "They did what they were supposed to do. I thought the guys fought hard and showed what kind of team we really are."
That was the Jaguars' theme all week – that despite few outside the team giving them a chance, they believed an upset was possible. Mularkey said afterward the team entered the game as it had all season, confident in victory.
And through much of the game, that confidence showed.
The Jaguars set a franchise record for yards in a quarter with 202 in the first period, after which they led 10-3. A three-yard touchdown pass from Henne to Justin Blackmon capped the game's first drive, a nine-play, 78-yarder that gave the Jaguars a 7-0 lead.
That was the first time the Jaguars had scored a touchdown on their opening possession since October 2011, and when kicker Josh Scobee converted a 41-yard field goal with 5:43 remaining, the Jaguars unexpectedly led, 10-0.
The Patriots dominated the next two periods, turning a 10-point deficit into a 23-13 lead with Tom Brady throwing touchdown passes of 14 yards to Danny Woodhead late in the first half and two yards to Wes Welker 45 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Jaguars this season repeatedly had let such situations turn into one-sided losses, but on Sunday, Henne immediately led an 11-play, 56-yard drive after Welker's touchdown.
Scobee's 42-yard field goal with 8:42 left made it 23-16.
At that point, a Jaguars defense that played perhaps its best game of the season turned in perhaps its best stretch of the game, forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing possession.
Trailing 23-16 with 7:37 remaining, the Jaguars drove to the Patriots one, getting there when Blackmon caught a five-yard pass from Henne to make it 2nd-and-goal on the one. On the ensuing play, tight end Zack Potter was called for illegal motion.
"We practice that all week," Henne said. "We just have to be focused in."
That gave the Jaguars 3rd-and-6 on the 1. Henne was sacked on the ensuing play, then was intercepted by safety Patrick Chung on 4th-and-6.
The Jaguars made one more stop, regaining possession on their 38 with 54 seconds remaining, then reaching the Patriots 12 with eight seconds remaining when Henne passed 18 yards to wide receiver Jordan Shipley.
But after Henne's pass to Toney Clemons fell incomplete, his desperation pass into the end zone on the game's final play was again intercepted by Chung.
Henne finished having completed 29 of 51 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, while Brady finished 24-of-41 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. The Jaguars sacked Brady twice – on back-to-back plays in the third quarter.
Blackmon led Jaguars receivers with seven receptions for 79 yards, while Shorts caught six passes for 54 yards. Shorts, who missed the Jaguars' game against the Jets two weeks ago with a concussion, left Sunday's game on the final series after sustaining a vicious blow to the head from Chung.
"I don't know if I've been this proud of a football team in my life," an emotional Mularkey said afterward. "We're going to go a long way if they play like that, with that kind of heart and that kind of character."