ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Let's start with the big picture.
The Jaguars' 35-32 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills Saturday was not only a preseason game, it was a preseason game in which five very important players – Maurice Jones-Drew, Aaron Kampman and Tyson Alualu among them – did not play. As such, panic is not the proper response.
Still, for a lot of the significant portion of this game – i.e., the first half and early in the second – this wasn't what the Jaguars expected. And it sure wasn't what they wanted.
What the Jaguars wanted was a crisp, efficient performance in the third preseason game, the game NFL teams point to as the most important of the preseason. They particularly wanted that from the first-team offense and defense, which played into the third quarter.
They didn't get it, certainly not at first.
Instead, they got Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick playing a near-perfect first half, and got the Bills not only taking a 17-0 lead, but doing it in easy fashion.
The Jaguars didn't pressure Fitzpatrick, and didn't make things nearly as difficult for the Bills as they had made it for the Falcons a week before.
Offensively, the Jaguars talked all week about efficiency, and about really, really wanting to score an offensive touchdown or two, something they hadn't done with the first- or second-team offense in the first two preseason games.
They got their offensive touchdown, but it was hard to argue during the first quarter and a half that the Jaguars looked anything close to efficient.
There were reasons, legitimate reasons. The Jaguars played without five extremely important players.
Kampman. Jones-Drew. Clint Sesson. Eben Britton. Alualu. If the Jaguars go into any regular-season game without those five players, they won't exactly be favored.
Particularly striking was the difference defensively without Alualu in the lineup. A week ago against the Falcons, as Alualu and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton penetrated and disrupted as they have become accustomed to doing, the Jaguars' defense looked dominant at times against a big-time, potent offense.
Without Alualu, the Jaguars weren't dominant against the Bills. They were the opposite.
"The bottom line is if you don't get those little things done it doesn't look real good and that's the way it was early," Head Coach Jack Del Rio said. "It's not what we're looking for, but again we settled down and made a couple of plays there at the end and got ourselves off the field defensively with what looked like Joe Montana there for a little while. We're really not doing enough defensively to slow him down and on offense we need to move the ball."
We told you all week the third preseason game mattered. We won't come off of that. And with or without the missing players, for a quarter and a half Friday, this was rough. Still, Del Rio said, too, that he liked what he saw late in the first half and early in the second, and there's a case to be made for that. The Jaguars scored 32 consecutive points to take a 32-17 lead, and just as you can't ignore what happened early, you can't ignore the early part of the comeback.
With the Jaguars trailing 17-0, Jones-Drew gathered his offensive teammates on the sidelines. They scored on the next three drives. Garrard looked good on those drives, and at the same time, wide receiver Jason Hill showed flashes of the player the Jaguars want him to be.
A four-yard scramble by Garrard cut the Bills lead to 17-7 and a late two-minute drive ended with a field goal by Josh Scobee to make it 17-10, Bills at halftime.
The rest of the game will be largely ignored in the post-game analyses, and rightfully so. The starters for each team left after the first half, or shortly thereafter, and it's hard to judge much from the Jaguars' two second-half touchdowns, or the Bills' late rally that made the stadium workers and the media work overtime.
The overtime? That happened long enough after Fitzpatrick's early effectiveness to make it seem like two different games.
We learned a few things Saturday. One, while the future of the franchise is rookie Blaine Gabbert, the future is not now. We learned, too, that the Jaguars need Jones-Drew on offense, and Alualu on defense. We learned, too, that while Improvements have been made improving must continue between now and the September 11 regular-season opener.
But, really, we knew those things already, and the Jaguars did, too. This team is what most young, building teams are – a work in progress. There will be highs and lows, and sometimes – many times – those things will occur in the same game, even the same quarter.
Saturday's game reinforced that, and while an important part of Saturday's game wasn't what the Jaguars wanted to see, the Jaguars afterward talked extensively of liking what they saw late in the second quarter and early in the third. They weren't thrilled with a lot of the performance, but they remained convinced they are more the team from the middle of the game than the beginning and the end.
The big picture is they need to hope they're right.