The postseason flame that burned so bright when the week began has been reduced to a flicker by two heartbreaking defeats in the span of four days. December's dream has turned to despair for the Jaguars.
Just when it appeared they were on their way to a signature win of national acclaim, Peyton Manning snatched victory out of thin air, as he has done all season long. His 65-yard touchdown bomb to Reggie Wayne with 5:23 left to play lifted the Indianapolis Colts to a 35-31 victory that keeps them on course for perfection.
"The biggest thing we didn't want to do was give anything cheap over the top. That one at the end hurt," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said of Wayne's touchdown catch.
Wayne ran past cornerback Derek Cox, who passed Wayne on to safety Reggie Nelson, but Nelson got underneath Wayne and Manning's pass hit his wide receiver in stride. It was a gut-wrenching moment for Jacksonville Municipal Stadium's biggest crowd of the season, as it watched Manning's third-and-five pass drop from the sky. There was no doubt that ball and receiver would meet.
"He's got to be over the top of that and be able to tackle the guy. It was probably not a good idea to try to punch the ball out," Del Rio said of Nelson, whose missed tackle on tight end Dallas Clark in the third quarter allowed a 27-yard touchdown play that gave the Colts a 28-24 lead.
It was a back and forth kind of game. This was not a game for people who like defense. Manning threw for 308 yards, four touchdowns and a 134.4 passer rating. Garrard was superb until the end, when he pitched an interception as the Jaguars attempted to rally.
"We had the ball with a chance and didn't quite get it done," Del Rio said. "The last two weeks we've had plenty of opportunities to win the games."
Thursday's "NFL Network" special was similar in frustration for the Jaguars to their 14-10 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday. In each game, the Jaguars had the ball with a chance to win in the final minutes. In each game, they failed to score in those crunch-time drives.
This was a game in which the Jaguars dominated the Colts defense every bit as much as Manning and company dominated the Jaguars defense. The Jaguars offense, however, went dead in the fourth quarter. That was the difference in the game, not to mention a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown the Jaguars allowed in the first half.
"It felt good for most of the game. The ball felt good coming out of my hand. Even the last pass but, as it turned out, it was high," Garrard said of his third-and-10 pass from the Colts 33 that was intended for rookie wide receiver Mike Thomas. It sailed over Thomas' head and into the hands of Colts defensive back Jacob Lacey.
"This was a perfect opportunity to go down and score a game-winning touchdown," said Garrard, who knows he'll be harshly criticized for the fourth-quarter failure. "That's all right. That's the position I'm blessed to play. This is a game I love to play, but it's still a game."
The Jaguars pounded the ball at the Colts, as Maurice Jones-Drew topped the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time since Nov. 15. The Jaguars' success on the ground allowed them to hold the ball nearly 11 minutes longer than the Colts.
It has long been the formula for beating the Colts: Dominate time of possession and, thus, keep Manning on the bench. The kickoff return for a touchdown and the bomb to Wayne foiled the strategy.
"You see why they're undefeated. They're able to close out games," Jones-Drew said.
The Jaguars no doubt won a lot of respect among fans across the country who watched the game and were entertained. The Jaguars probably even made a lot of fans who found themselves rooting for the underdogs, but it didn't feel like any kind of victory.
"We're not looking for moral victories or being close. We want to make it to the postseason. We still have hope. That's where we are," Del Rio said.
They no longer control their own destiny. The Jags need help and they need to win their remaining two games, both of which are on the road, in New England and in Cleveland. Clearly, the Jags' playoff hopes are fading.
The more realistic hope is that the effort and excitement with which the Jaguars played against the Colts will have captured the hearts of those who saw the game, an audience that included, for the first time this year, local TV viewers.
"Obviously, we're heading in the right direction," Jones-Drew said. "I guess this is what the fans are looking for," he added, referring to the high-paced excitement.
One more touchdown drive was the only thing missing.