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Liking the mindset

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We'll start with the obvious, the expected.

Nothing happened at EverBank Field Thursday night that will change your mind about the Jaguars, but here's the thing: Not much was supposed to happen, not along those lines.

Not anything earth-shakingly, perception-changing, anyway.

Yes, the Jaguars lost, 24-17, to the St. Louis Rams, a team that looked good throughout the preseason and a team that continued to look good Thursday. And yes, even before the game slipped into Evaluation Time, many of the same issues that have upset people about the Jaguars for the last month happened again.

The offense wasn't perfect, and started too slow.

The defense gave up a few too many big plays, and for the second time in three weeks, a pretty good defensive performance was marred by a long touchdown.

Most notably, the offensive line struggled. Again.

But as preseason ends, it's time to talk big picture, and that's what someone asked Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio about moments after the team lost its preseason finale for the first time in six seasons.

Del Rio put it in the proper perspective.

He said, as he has before this preseason, that these games aren't about the score, or impressing observers. He also said what is believed throughout the building – that whatever the preseason results, there remains a feeling that this team is better now than a year ago.

That team a year ago, remember, won eight games.

It also contended for the AFC South title deep into December, their most serious contention for a division championship since 1999.

 "We've been in the hunt the last two years with a roster that's nowhere near as good as this one," Del Rio said. "We have a better roster. Guys are dialed in, working hard. We're excited about what 2011 can be. We just have to play. We have to prepare hard and out-execute on Sundays. The team that plays the best on Sunday wins. We want to be that team. I like where our mindset is."

The Jaguars aren't perfect, and they're not going to challenge the '72 Dolphins. They're going to have hiccups, and maybe an ugly loss or two. They're a team with potential, a team that must scrape and claw and fight and win close games.

We knew that. We expected that. And that's what they are.

They are, as also was expected, a team that still must improve. In the instant analysis, the 24-7 news-cycle age, the NFL is overanalyzed and immediate results are expected. The Jaguars signed a slew of players shortly before training camp, and that slew is being counted on to dramatically improve the defense. It hasn't looked perfect early, but you think a team can't look rough one week and good the next?

The Jaguars lost four games by 25 or more points early last season.

They were 8-5 with three games remaining.

The Jaguars contended last season despite the 28th-ranked defensive in the NFL. So far in preseason, there's no reason to think the unit won't improve, and if they do that and package it with a consistent offense – as was the case with pretty much this group last season – they can compete each week.

Del Rio has said there's no grace period for the defense, that even though Clint Session, Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry, Drew Coleman and Matt Roth all have joined the team in the last five weeks, the defense must be good immediately. That's what he should say, and it's true.

It's also true that this group is still learning one another, and there's every chance it will be a better defense October 11 than September 11.

As for the offense, it hasn't looked good in the preseason. That's not ideal, but it's understandable, and familiar. The Jaguars for now are a run-oriented offense. The preseason is not a time to grind on the running game and wear out offense linemen. That's for the regular season, and if you trust history, history shows the Jaguars will be able to run.

What the Jaguars are may resemble what the Jaguars were last season too much for some. There are some who want change – specifically, a change at quarterback. Rookie Blaine Gabbert has looked good in spots. What he hasn't been is consistent, and to play him now would be admitting you're not a postseason team.

It's not that time. Not yet.

When the Rams started Sam Bradford last season, they were coming off a one-victory season. When the Colts started Peyton Manning as a rookie in 1998, they had won three games the season before. The Jaguars won eight games last season and believe they can win more this season.

Had there been no lockout, maybe the kid's ready. But that's not reality.

The reality, too, is that while the Jaguars haven't been perfect this preseason, they believe they're better now than a year ago. More than that, they believe they will keep getting better.

 "We are where we can be, after a month of work," Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "We haven't been able to get out there together, but we'll improve throughout the year, and we'll improve throughout games, playing with each other. That will be great."

That's the big picture. Opening day is nine days away.

The team that plays the best on Sunday wins. 

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