(Jan. 7) FOXBOROUGH, MA—Hopes were high; maybe too high. Now it's time for some down-to-earth analysis and perspective.
The Jaguars will use their 28-3 playoff loss to the New England Patriots as a measuring stick. We should do the same.
Where is this team in its bid to become one of the league's elite? Is it a true 12-4? Is it a legitimate postseason club? This was the game we all agreed would define the Jaguars' season, so it's time to decide what that definition is.
Obviously, the Jaguars are not in the Patriots' class. So who is? Ten times teams have tried over the last four years and they all achieved the same result the Jaguars did. They all lost; some of them a couple of times.
The Patriots remain the undisputed champion of the NFL. They are quality; the highest quality. There is no shame in losing to those guys, especially on their home field. You know how many points the Colts scored against them in last year's playoffs? That's right, three, just like the Jaguars.
Cincinnati might have been a kinder draw for the Jaguars, but, you know, the Jaguars needed to play the Patriots. The Jaguars needed to play the best on their turf in January. This was the kind of game from which this team can draw experience for next year's playoffs.
Do you doubt this team is headed there? Don't doubt. This is a quality team. I'm not going to tell you 12-4 is a true indicator of where it is because, yes, I do believe that record was inflated a bit by a soft finishing schedule. I do not doubt, however, that this team was worthy of its playoff berth.
Factors conspired to compromise the Jaguars' strength late in the season. Its situation at quarterback isn't what a coach wants to take into the playoffs, and there were injuries on defense that weakened what had been the Jaguars' season-long calling card. Truth be known, the Jaguars were not in a good way heading into the playoffs.
One of the major problems was that they never defined their running game. At times the Jaguars leaned on Fred Taylor and at other times on Greg Jones, but neither guy established himself as a runner on whom the team could depend and that's something that has to change next season because playoff success is built around strong running games. The Jaguars simply did not run the ball enough against the Patriots.
The respect thing became a major distraction for this team late in the year. The constant clamoring for acceptance by the media became as intense as the focus on the next opponent. That's something that also has to change. Football must be played with a singleness of purpose and that purpose is to win the next game; nothing else.
"We accomplished some things this year. We established some things and there are some areas we need to strengthen," coach Jack Del Rio said in his postgame interview at Gillette Stadium.
There you go. There's perspective. That's exactly what this season has been, a series of accomplishments leading to an ending that made it clear more work remains to be accomplished. The coach knew how to put it all into perspective. It's just as simple as he said.
"We don't have any say-so over the schedule. Clearly, this was the best football team we've seen in awhile," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars will see those kinds of teams on a more regular basis next season. The Jaguars will have games at home against the Patriots, Steelers, Giants and Cowboys. The Jaguars will play at the Chiefs, Redskins, Eagles and Dolphins. Those are in addition to two against the Colts.
It has the potential to be a killer schedule. It's the kind of schedule that could harden next year's team for the playoffs, and that's something this year's team needed late in the season.
This year was about returning to the playoffs. That's where Del Rio set the bar on draft day last spring and he delivered. After five years of absence from the playoffs, the Jaguars are back. After an intense few years of salary cap repair and roster reconstruction, the Jaguars are built to last. That's the final analysis of what the Jaguars accomplished this season.
Their 28-3 loss in New England told us what the Jaguars aren't. Their 12-4 record gave us promise for what they can become.