They are back at .500 for the first time since the first month of the season. In Cincinnati this Sunday, the Jaguars will attempt to put themselves in the black for the first time since they beat the Bengals on Sept. 17. In many ways, the Jaguars are attempting to turn the clock back, but they can't turn it back all the way, and it hurts them.
"The fact that we're not going to be in the playoffs is discouraging," Jimmy Smith said following today's 44-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
It is another in a series of late-season victories that now number four in a row and which may allow the Jaguars to claim the distinction of being the NFL's best team not to make the playoffs, but it is a hollow honor.
"There have been some years when we've had great records and didn't play as well in December as this group is playing right now," coach Tom Coughlin said.
That is not a hollow distinction. It is this team's greatest source of pride, finishing a disappointing season with an encouraging flurry of textbook football.
The 4-10 Cardinals, on only a slightly higher plane than the Cleveland Browns of 48-0 fame, were easy pickings. The Jaguars scored on their first seven possessions of the game, seven of their eight total possessions, and punted only once in the game, after Jamie Martin and the reserves had sent Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor and company to the bench.
It was the second consecutive "money" game for Taylor, who is beginning to reach or near contract incentives for yards rushing and touchdowns that could earn Taylor in excess of a million dollars by season's end. Taylor is running as he has never run before, having notched his eighth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and adding two more touchdowns to his 2000 resume.
"All along, we knew we were a better team than we were showing," Taylor said. "It's been a bumpy year for everybody," he added, including Jaguars fans who witnessed their final home game of the season. "We're hoping they're satisfied with this victory."
That's not likely for fans of a team that began the season as a Super Bowl favorite. The disappointment remains, though the Jaguars have given their fans great reason to cheer in three consecutive wins to conclude the home season.
The Jaguars offense continues to turn in record-setting performances. The 92 combined points they've scored in their last two wins is a team record. The previous mark was a mere 71 points.
"It's too bad about the playoff situation because we're on a roll right now. This is exactly what you want in December, playing your best football," Mark Brunell said, following a day in which he threw for 182 yards and two touchdowns before retiring to the bench late in the third quarter.
"I think it starts with the offensive line, those guys playing physical, playing with a lot of intensity. And the protection is there. We had no sacks today," Brunell added.
The Jaguars' performances have been so dominating as of late that optimism for next season has already begun. "I think it's important that we keep as many players as we can here," Brunell said, lobbying for owner Wayne Weaver to bite the salary-cap bullet and find a way to keep this team together, though the Jaguars are facing the league's most dire salary-cap situation.
"We want to have everybody back, but it's not going to happen," Taylor lamented.
"It started off up front. When we started to run the ball … that's when it started to come together," Coughlin said.
Remaining on the Jaguars' schedule are games in Cincinnati and at the New York Giants. With two more wins, the Jaguars will clinch their fifth consecutive winning season. Four years ago, 9-7 put them in the playoffs and on their way to a Cinderella run to the AFC title game. This year, the AFC field is much stronger, and any chance the Jaguars had of rallying to make the playoffs ended with a Nov. 12 loss to visiting Seattle.
The Jaguars are beginning to distance themselves from the disappointment of their early-season collapse, but even the most upbeat of days was cursed by the disappointing news of rookie wide receiver R. Jay Soward's one-game suspension for team rules violations. Soward was believed to have missed a team meeting the Friday before Sunday's game.
"He violated a team rule. He knew the consequences. The rest is between the club and R. Jay," Coughlin said.
It has been a season of fines for team rules violations for the first-round draft choice. His season will end in disappointment and with the challenge of delivering on his promise next season.
"R. Jay is a good kid. It's unfortunate his rookie year isn't going the way we expected it to go. It's up to R. Jay. When he wants to go out there and make some plays, he'll do it," Smith said. "Next year, he'll begin to mature and grow. He's a grown man. It's up to him to decide."
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell and Smith have been one of the league's all-time great pass-catching tandems over the past five seasons, and it was hoped Soward would benefit from McCardell's and Smith's examples. McCardell believes that will still happen.
"A little offseason time with us and he'll be fine," McCardell said.
The offseason is something the Jaguars are going to welcome, and they want it to be an offseason of feeling good, as opposed to last offseason, which was spent with "remorse for opportunity lost" in the AFC title game.
"You would to be able to build on a late-season surge," linebacker Kevin Hardy said.