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No explanation for defense's collapse


BALTIMORE--The Jaguars were firmly in control. This would be their resurrection day, or at least it seemed that way, until the Baltimore Ravens stole life from the Jaguars and stayed alive in the AFC Central Division title chase with an 18-17 win at PSINet Stadium Sunday.

• Down 17-6 with 14:53 to play in the game, the Ravens move the ball 71 yards in nine, easy plays.

• Less than two minutes later, they begin an eight-play, 56-yard touchdown drive that sent them into the lead.

It is, yet, another example of the unexplained in a season of unexplained phenomena. Why were the Ravens able to move the ball for touchdowns on consecutive drives with the game on the line, after having made it inside the Jaguars 20-yard line only once previously?

"I hang this one on the defense," linebacker Kevin Hardy said, and his defensive mates echoed his sentiments.

In their previous loss, coach Tom Coughlin had absolved his defense of blame, even though it had allowed the Buffalo Bills to drive for the game-winning field goal with the game tied. This time, even though Coughlin wanted to avoid blaming his players for the loss, he couldn't avoid the obvious facts.

"We didn't stop them. Let's face it: We did not stop them when we had to," Coughlin said.

It would've helped had the television cameras captured a more decisive picture of Qadry Ismail's game-winning, two-yard touchdown catch. Replay left everyone with the impression the ball had struck the ground underneath Ismail's chest, but referee Jeff Triplette, after spending considerable time reviewing the play, told the crowd the video evidence was insufficient to overrule the touchdown call.

"Everyone tells me the ball is on the ground. I have to say the ball is on the ground," Coughlin said.

Coughlin "challenged" the touchdown ruling "blindly." Linebackers coach Steve Szabo, who watches TV replays from his press box perch and informs Coughlin whether to challenge the call, was unable to offer an opinion to his coach because TV did not make replay available before the next play was to be run. Coughlin decided to take a chance; that the play was too critical not to challenge.

However, the Jaguars did not cry too loud about being the victim of bad replay. How could they complain? They had collapsed with victory seemingly tucked away.

They had to point fingers at themselves, but Coughlin resisted every instinct to do that. He knew his team had given him their best effort. He knew his team was in a vulnerable emotional state as it left the field in Baltimore.

"I take no solace in losing. I'm very proud of the effort, but you're going to ask me about being up 17-6 and why can't we get over the hump? It's a good question. I don't blame anyone in that locker room," Coughlin said.

The defense was accepting blame. Had it not been for the failure to stop the Ravens in the fourth quarter, Sunday's game would've been one of the most glorious wins in Jaguars history. Instead, it is one of the most painful losses.

In the Ravens two, fourth-quarter touchdown drives, they faced only two third-down plays, both times in the second touchdown drive: third-and-three at the Jaguars 22-yard line, and third-and-two at the two-yard line. Quarterback Randall Cunningham converted the first third-down try with a 13-yard pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe, and the second third-down play resulted in the Ismail touchdown.

Cunningham was the star of the Ravens' rally, but it was former Jaguars practice-squad running back Jason Brookins who was the Ravens' real hero. Brookins rushed for 77 yards in the second half, including 26 yards and a two-yard touchdown run in the Ravens' two touchdown drives.

Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell turned in his most impressive performance of the season. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110.9 passer rating. His 38-yard scramble in the second quarter is the longest run of his career and the longest run from scrimmage against the Ravens this season.

"We did some good things, but we'd like to have that last drive back," Brunell said, referring to a failed final push toward a potential game-winning field goal. Brunell moved the Jaguars to the Ravens 44-yard line where, on fourth-and-five with 1:50 to play, Brunell missed a diving Keenan McCardell with a pass over the middle. The pass was errant, the result of Brunell being forced out of the pocket to his right.

"I do feel that when we lose it's my responsibility. I'm the quarterback," said Brunell. "Just a little bit more time and that would've been it. We just missed it," he added of the pass for McCardell. "When the game is on the line, you've got to be able to stand in there and deliver the ball, even with pressure in your face, and I missed him,"

Of course, Brunell and the Jaguars offense was playing against the top-ranked defense in the league. That's what made losing less difficult to swallow; especially since the Jaguars offense had been mired in a three-game slump.

"This game is on the defense," defensive tackle Seth Payne said. "We had the game won. We let it slip away."

It appeared as though the Jaguars were headed toward victory, after Brunell led the Jaguars on an eight-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, and an opportunistic two-play, 45-yarder that followed a Hardy Nickerson interception of a pass juggled by Ravens fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Brunell capped the second touchdown drive with an 11-yard scoring toss to running back Stacey Mack, who adeptly got both feet down in bounds before exiting the back-left corner of the end zone.

The picture was bright for the Jaguars on a cool, cloudless Maryland day. Then, the "storm clouds" rolled in, again.


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