EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.--They lost their final game the way they had lost three other games that had made their season playoff-less. It was a theme of this Jaguars team that when they needed to make plays, their opponents did.
It was that way in Giants Stadium two days before Christmas, as the Jaguars lost a 10-7 fourth-quarter lead in a 28-25 loss that caused the Jaguars to suffer their first losing season since their inaugural season, 1995.
At 7-9, the Jaguars rank as one the most disappointing teams of the NFL season. They were a preseason Super Bowl favorite. Now, they are resigned to rebuilding.
"We came to win. I'm proud of the way we played. There was no quit. I said to my guys: I'm proud of the way they battled. They fought adversity all year long," coach Tom Coughlin said at his postgame press conference.
Coughlin made sure to send his players into the offseason with a kind word and encouragement. He knew his words would be his last to many of his players, as the Jaguars head into what promises to be the most tumultuous offseason in their history.
It needed for its season to end. It wanted to play another game, a playoff game, but too often in 2000 the Jaguars proved they were not playoff-caliber; too many times they folded at crunch time.
It happened in Baltimore in week two, against Seattle at midseason, in Cincinnati in week 16, and then, for the final time this season, against the Giants.
The Jaguars were in control of the game early in the fourth quarter. Though their lead was a scant 10-7, the Jaguars defense was dominating play when the Giants took possession at their 25-yard line with 14 minutes to play in the game.
Playoff homefield advantage was at stake for the Giants. The Jaguars were playing only for pride. The stronger of the two incentives won, as the Giants moved quickly down the field, on the strength of a 42-yard pass from Kerry Collins to Amani Toomer and a 28-yard strike to Ike Hilliard. Two plays later, Tiki Barber ran into the end zone untouched from five yards out, and the Giants held a 14-10 lead.
Jacksonville's next drive was halted by an interception, then, at the 3:30 mark, Mark Brunell threw incomplete on fourth-and-five. Collins followed with a 54-yard touchdown pass to Toomer.
"I'm not feeling very good. I'm disappointed. We have a lot of things to get done with this team," Coughlin told reporters.
A major emphasis next season will be put on playing best when it counts the most. The Jaguars were not a clutch team this season and may have developed a losing habit.
"The ball didn't bounce our way this year. We just didn't make the plays," cornerback Aaron Beasley said.
Now, Coughlin and owner Wayne Weaver must decide if they're going to make the play of plays, which would be signing Brunell to a new contract. Brunell's current deal has one year remaining, but he would be a $13 million hit on the Jaguars' salary cap next season and because the Jaguars can't afford that hit, they must negotiate a new deal with Brunell or trade him before next season.
They'll need Brunell's help, because the Jags don't have much room in their future caps, either. They're hoping Brunell's desire to stay in Jacksonville will favor the team in negotiations.
"This is where he wants to play," said offensive tackle Tony Boselli, Brunell's best friend. "He loves Jacksonville. He feels like this is his team and he wants to be here. He's going to do everything he can to stay here," Boselli added.
The loss to the Giants was, to a degree, symbolic of the Jaguars' season. You came away believing they should've beaten a team that is the number one seed in the NFC playoffs, but they didn't. And in the final three minutes of the game, after the outcome had been decided, the Jags moved the ball with ease and scored twice, but they couldn't do it when it mattered.
By the same token, the defense had the chance to preserve a 10-7 victory, but collapsed. It raises this question: What was wrong with this team?
"You're not going to make the playoffs every season," Beasley said.
Maybe that's the answer.
It didn't help the Jaguars' cause that they played much of the game without star running back Fred Taylor and wide receiver Jimmy Smith. Taylor left the game in the third quarter with a bruised hip pointer, and Smith exited in the first quarter after being knocked cold by safety Shaun Williams.
Taylor's 100-yard streak ended at nine games. "Every game I go into I think 200 yards. Why not? I'll start another one next year," said Taylor, who scored on a 44-yard run in the second quarter, tying the game at 7-7.
The Giants made Taylor a marked man, following Taylor's comments that the Giants defense wasn't as good as Tennessee's or Baltimore's. He finished with 52 yards on 13 carries and may have extended his 100-yard streak had he not been injured.
With Smith out of action, Keenan McCardell got the bulk of the catches, 11 for 131 yards, capping McCardell's finest season as a pro. What was it worth?
"It means nothing because we didn't get to the playoffs. When you want to win as bad as everyone in this locker room does, they're just stats," McCardell said. "When we see everybody playing in the playoffs, we're going to realize how much we miss that rush."
They'll remember the plays they didn't make and the ones their opponents did.