The Jaguars could only hope they had reached bottom.
With their 24-23 loss to the previously winless Pittsburgh Steelers today, the Jaguars (2-3) are below .500 for the first time since week 15 of the 1996 season. They were physically manhandled by the Steelers, and just ahead is a game against the Baltimore Ravens, considered to be an even more dominant physical force than the Steelers.
The even worse news is the Jaguars were likely to be without the services of linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who suffered what was believed to be a severe hamstring pull in the second quarter of the loss to the Steelers.
These are the worst times in Jaguars franchise history. Their loss to the Steelers wasn't as close as the final score, and the Jaguars' postseason hopes are clearly on the line as they continue a stretch of schedule that will finish with Baltimore, at Tennessee, Washington and at Dallas before the bye week arrives.
"We're not a very good football team right now. Comparisons? I don't even have any," coach Tom Coughlin said.
The final stats represent one of the worst beatings in Jaguars history. The Steelers gained 209 yards on the ground, and held the Jaguars to a franchise-low 26 yards, and the Steelers' seven sacks tie the record for most-allowed in Jaguars history.
Comparisons? Well, those are 1995 numbers, but even then the Jaguars beat the Steelers in Jacksonville.
Everything about Sunday's game defied description.
o Fred Taylor was held to 24 yards rushing and 1.6 yards per carry. Taylor had no yards on seven carries in the first half.
o Jimmy Smith was held to two receptions for 20 yards. The last time he was held to those kinds of numbers was in a Monday night win over Miami in 1998, when he left the game with an injury in the first quarter.
o Mark Brunell was 15 of 32 for 137 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He played on a strained left calf muscle and was removed from the game in the fourth quarter. It was one of the few times in Brunell's career that he played in a game in which he didn't quarterback the Jaguars to a touchdown.
Making matters worse, the Jaguars were handed several point-blank opportunities, including a blocked punt they recovered at the Steelers four-yard line early in the first quarter, and a ridiculous spike-the-ball fumble by Steelers rookie wide receiver Plaxico Burress. The Jaguars scored only three points as a result of those gift-wrapped chances.
Field position clearly favored the Jaguars, who began drives in the second half at the Steelers 47, 27 and 26-yard lines. Two of those drives ended on downs, and the third in a lost fumble.
One of the Jaguars' two field goals was the result of a mysterious delay-of-game penalty against the Steelers defense near the end of the first half, and the Jaguars' only touchdown, with nine harmless seconds left to play, bounced out of R. Jay Soward's hands and into Keenan McCardell's.
Six days removed from the most humiliating defeat in their history, the Jaguars hit a new low. "It's the lowest point since I've been playing any sport. We got to toughen up," Taylor said.
There are great doubts about the Jaguars, who began the season with talk of making it to the Super Bowl, but now find themselves having to defend their position as playoff contenders.
"We have to do something quick. The schedule doesn't get any easier," offensive tackle Tony Boselli said. "When you're 2-3 and you're supposed to be one of the better teams in the AFC, there's probably a hundred things you can change."
They can start by changing three things; their performances on offense, defense and special teams.
"We knew the situation," Coughlin said. "We did not make any significant plays early on to give us the spark we needed. We supposedly have some veteran football players, but we're not playing well right now, so I don't know if that means anything."
Coughlin's immediate postgame mood was one of surrender. He had just witnessed his team having been physically whipped by the Steelers. It was impossible for him to pinpoint one play or one call as having been the turning point in the game. The Steelers dominated throughout, even though the Jaguars got the vast majority of the breaks.
"We just gotta fight. It's a long season. We're 2-3 and we're going to take a lot of heat, and we should," defensive tackle Gary Walker said. "It was the worst game I played in my career," added Walker, who suffered a knee injury late in the game. The severity of that injury wasn't immediately known.
Quick analysis of the game points to the fact that the Jaguars' inability to run the football with any degree of success allowed the Steelers to commit fewer people to the line of scrimmage and drop more defenders into the passing lanes. At times, the Steelers stopped the Jaguars running game with a four-man front.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers' ability to move the sticks and control the clock with their running game allowed them to lessen the importance of quarterback Kordell Stewart, who was making his first start of the season. Stewart replaced Kent Graham, who was forced out of action by a hip injury.
"They did an outstanding job. They did a variety of things similar to what Tennessee does. They didn't allow themselves to get beat deep today. When they knew we couldn't run the ball, they dropped more people into coverage," said Smith, who was blanketed by cornerback Dewayne Washington.
"It's still early; there's a lot of football to be played. Give Pittsburgh credit, but we didn't come out and play," Smith added.
"In this league, you've got to run the ball," McCardell said, "and we've got to get physical. We've got to hit somebody in the mouth and it starts in practice."