JACKSONVILLE – The Jaguars' 2016 season is not over.
Telvin Smith knows many people don't see it that way, and he understands why. Those people aren't Smith's concern. For Smith, this Jaguars season remains interesting.
For Smith, there remains plenty of motivation.
Five games remaining? That's almost a third of an NFL regular season – and to the Jaguars' weak-side linebacker and emotional leader, that third matters a great deal.
"We're just setting the stage right now," Smith said as the Jaguars (2-9) prepared to play the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (7-4) at EverBank Field Sunday at 1 p.m. "These are the previews for the show that's about to come. We're just warming up."
Make no mistake:
No one on the Jaguars believes 2-9 is OK. The season has been disappointing and discouraging – and confusing, maddening and flat-out enraging.
Fans have felt those things; players have, too.
But something intriguing happened in the last few weeks. It's most notable on defense, but if you sift through loss after loss, you see evidence on offense, too.
This team isn't quitting. This team is making strides in some areas.
That doesn't erase the disappointment, and players know it may not prevent offseason change, but it does give the team's core players cause for optimism. And it darned sure gives them motivation.
Smith put the approach into words after Sunday's loss in Buffalo, essentially saying that from the current failures will rise a Super Bowl-winning team. He reiterated that Wednesday when asked about the notion that at 2-9 there is nothing left for which to play this season.
"That is the mindset of somebody who has given up," Smith said. "That's the mindset of somebody who doesn't see the bigger picture of things. If you say, 'Well, it's over,' then you're not doing this as a career. You're doing this as a hobby or something else right now. You won't be here later on."
And has been the case over the last six weeks, the next five games will provide a test. The Jaguars' current six-game losing streak has come against six teams with winning or .500 records: Oakland, Tennessee, Kansas City, Houston, Detroit and Buffalo.
It gets no easier over the final five: Denver, Minnesota, Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis …
All are over, at or within a game of .500. All have playoff hopes.
The Jaguars don't fit into the above category, and that sometimes can mean a listless feel to a season's final month. When discussing the upcoming schedule, quarterback Blake Bortles didn't talk listlessly Wednesday.
"We look at it like, 'Here are a bunch of teams who are in a race to make the playoff hunt … let's see how we stack up against them,''' Bortles said. "We feel as though we can play with anybody, so let's see how good we are. It's an opportunity to play some good teams."
As Smith sees it, that's exactly the right attitude.
It's an attitude the defense has shown in the last four weeks, and an attitude Smith said this week the defense got away from a bit earlier in the season.
"We got away from who we are," Smith said. "We were searching for so many answers that we got away from just playing the game: go out and have fun, and do what you do. We pressed, and you're never going to find answers that way."
The Jaguars haven't won in recent weeks, but maybe – just maybe – they're beginning to find answers. That seems particularly true on defense. After a solid start, the defense stumbled in a home loss to Oakland, then trailed 27-0 at halftime of an embarrassing loss at Tennessee. How embarrassing? The Jaguars allowed the Titans 354 yards. In the first half.
If there was a time to quit, that was it.
Instead, the defense solidified. It improved its league ranking to No. 6 while allowing 19 points at Kansas City, 17 to Houston and 12 to Detroit. If that wasn't dominant, it was good. Against Buffalo Sunday? Dominant for a half before allowing two big plays in the second half of a 28-21 loss.
The stretch in a very real sense defined the season: close – frustratingly close – against contending teams … but not enough to win.
Perhaps in that stretch the Jaguars found the core of a defense that can become the core of the franchise. Perhaps this stretch of close but winning indeed is building a foundation.
"This team is continuing to build for who we're going to be," Smith said. "Who are we working to be? Not who people see us as now or a record of 2-9. We truly believe we're a playoff team, that we are a Super Bowl-winning team.
"That's what we're going to put on tape. That's what we're going to put on the field. You're not going to see people moping around. That's not us. In this locker room, we believe in what we do. If you're not thinking about growth … then what are you doing?"
That's certainly how Smith is thinking – and when you're thinking that way, five games can be very important indeed.