Suddenly, the fourth quarter is upon us.
That's how it works in an NFL season. You start in training camp, and whether you're a player, coach or a senior writer, you put your head down, do what you do each week, and suddenly sometime in December, you look up and you see the finish approaching.
This year, obviously, that finish doesn't look like what the Jaguars hoped.
Because of that, there are Jaguars followers who wonder about the point of the final four games. There are those who wonder – beyond the carrot of an NFL rushing title for running back Maurice Jones-Drew – what incentive remains at the three-quarter pole.
Here's another truth about the NFL:
The players involved? The coaches? The personnel people?
They don't see it that way.
Not the good ones anyway, and there are plenty of those around the Jaguars.
The players, coaches and personnel people? They aren't thinking draft order, and while there may be players whose bodies are soon ready for an off-season, players for the most part are of the mindset that playing in the NFL is a rare, short-lived thing.
As such, opportunities must be savored. Even at 3-9.
That, as much as anything, explains the disconnect between fans who discuss draft order and free agency at this time of the season and those whose jobs it is to win. Fans understandably are discouraged at much of what's gone on around the Jaguars this season, and they're understandably waiting for better days.
The Jaguars want better days, but those involved know the future will come, and the time to talk draft and free agency and to break down what went wrong will come in that future.
For now, four games remain, and to players, coaches and personnel people, those games matter. When players this week such as Maurice Jones-Drew and Paul Posluszny and Terrance Knighton talked about playing for pride, to hear their tone and conviction was to believe it.
Knighton could have shut the season down a few weeks ago, and thought he might have to. The thought of doing so, of having the ankle injury that kept him out three games, was distasteful to him for many reasons. Because he has a bond with his teammates, and because there are only so many games in a season, so many seasons in a career.
Maybe not every player in the NFL has Knighton's heart, but whatever the record this season, a lot of players on the Jaguars do. Their core guys certainly do.
So, while it may be true that players don't like talking about pride in December, because talking about pride means too many goals weren't reached, that doesn't mean the players don't have it.
And for them, it matters, and that's why the final month of the season does, too.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the Buccaneers Sunday.
1) Play for pride.I led with it. I at least have to mention it. The Jaguars have done many things this season, but quit isn't one of them. They didn't quit Monday, either. There's no reason to think they will, but at 3-9 and out of the playoff chase, a lot of teams have and a lot of teams would.
2) Get the quarterback out of the funk.Was the second half Monday a funk? A slump? A hiccup? Whatever it was, Blaine Gabbert has played better than that this season. He played better than that in the second quarter. The season has been about steps back and forward and sometimes they have come in one game. Monday was a big one of each.
3) Run Jones-Drew.No reason to explain this. Just because it needs no explanation doesn't mean you don't do it.
4) Consider it winnable. There have been games this season in which the Jaguars didn't match up well. A whole lot of the teams the Jaguars have played have been playing very, very well when they played them. This isn't one of those games. You can win it, even with the injuries, Play like it.
5) Stop LeGarrette Blount.The backs who have really hurt the Jaguars this season have been slashing, quick-hit, gashing backs. Blount isn't that, but the fact remains: the Jaguars didn't play well against the run Monday against San Diego. To beat Tampa, that has to improve. A lot.
6) Stay the course.I just had to say it. I know how much everyone likes hearing it.
7) Beware Freeman.Josh Freeman has been hurt, and neither he nor the Buccaneers have had the season they expected. This was a team that barely missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, so its season is just as disappointing as the Jaguars. Teams like that can be dangerous at the end of the season. So can quarterbacks such as Freeman, who is trying to return from a shoulder injury and is expected to start Sunday.
8) Generate pressure – somehow, some way.The Jaguars didn't register a sack against the Chargers Monday night. They got decent pressure at times, but it wasn't enough. That hasn't happened a lot this season, and the results showed when Rivers had way too much time and beat the secondary for three touchdowns around halftime. The Bucs' receivers aren't as good as those of the Chargers, but you still have to pressure Freeman, or more than the Jaguars did Rivers Monday.
9) Get 'em covered.The Buccaneers' wide receivers aren't the athletic, make-a-play-on-the-go-route receivers that the Chargers' are. But the Bucs saw the same game everyone else did Monday. Whoever starts at corner for the Jaguars – and it's likely again to be Ashton Youboty and Kevin Rutland – the coverage has to be better and plays have to be made on the ball. In the NFL, teams test a spot until it's proven to no longer be vulnerable.
10) Score three touchdowns.It may not guarantee a victory, but wouldn't it be great?* *