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Smith walks away with his head high

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BALTIMORE--They wouldn't allow themselves to feel bad about this one. Yeah, you could say they blew it. Yeah, they knew that's what everyone would say, and the defense didn't dare deflect blame for having collapsed twice with the game on the line, but the Jaguars' true leader in body and spirit, Jimmy Smith, appealed to the better sense of true Jaguars fans to accept this most recent defeat with the courage and dignity with which it was played.

"I'm so proud of the guys I play with that it doesn't even matter," Smith said when it was suggested fans and media would come down on the Jaguars for having folded with the game on the line. "I'm very proud of the guys. The loss hurts, but it doesn't hurt as much," Smith added.

They were words from the heart, in the hurt of a loser's locker room. Smith could've taken the opposite approach, for this was another nail in the Jaguars' coffin; a fourth nail in a seven-nail casket.

You could say Sunday's 18-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens makes it even more distinct that this will not be a playoff season for the Jaguars. At 2-4, and the remaining schedule against them, the facts of this final-window-of-opportunity season are becoming increasingly undeniable.

Smith understands all of that, and he'll admit it's hurting him, but he refused to tarnish the specter of his team's effort against the Ravens by painting it with a blackened brush. No, not this day.

"You got some banged up guys going against one of the best defenses in this era and we had them on their heels. I don't feel as bad about this one because today we went to war," Smith said.

He stood at his locker, a ceremonial "game ball" tucked away on the shelf, and raised his head and steeled his jaw. Smith was about more than winning; he was about being a proud member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I am proud of my quarterback. I'm proud of Stacey Mack. Everybody was on him and he redeemed himself. My hat's off to our true Jaguars fans. We're going to win some games for the true Jaguars fans, not the fair-weather fans," Smith said.

These are times for bonding and dividing. Those who are committed, win or lose, will grow closer. The whiners will be cast aside.

Criticism is expected, but not deserved. This team did the best it could. Not even its coach, Tom Coughlin, who "bleeds" longer and harder than any other man on earth, could point an accusing finger. He gritted his teeth, paced the postgame floor, bit his tongue, then just bled. It was all his players could do, too.

"We played hard today. We'll continue to do that," Coughlin offered.

The coach's greatest source of pride and, if possible, satisfaction, was the play of his quarterback, Mark Brunell. Coughlin had wondered when Brunell would snap out of his three-game funk; would he ever free himself from the post-hit effects of Cleveland defensive tackle Gerard Warren's brutal blindside?

Sunday, Brunell announced his recovery. He was 25 of 37 for 306 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110.9 passer rating. He was all of that on a day when he was playing against football's most celebrated savages. It was impressive.

"I was real proud of the way Mark played today. He was really something. He was really good," Coughlin said.

So, it has come to this, you might also say, that the Jaguars have reached the point of feeling good about losing. It would be a fair criticism that it's sad and disappointing that what was the best-record team in the league just two years ago has reached the point of moral victories.

You could say that, but what good would it accomplish? By now, we all know what's ahead. It's a tough year. We might as well find what good this season might present.

This past Sunday, this season gave us one of those games we'll remember forever; it gave us a classic, on a day when we expected much less.

The days remaining that we might celebrate this team are becoming fewer. Don't squander what's left.

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