JACKSONVILLE – This is not cause for panic. Seriously.
There are countless reasons to remember that in the wake of the Jaguars' disappointing early performance in what became a preseason victory over Cincinnati Bengals Sunday night. But the most important thing to remember is this:
Whatever the buildup, whatever the hype, this was just a preseason game.
It doesn't count in the standings. It won't be remembered in two weeks. No one will sit around in January saying, "Yep, it all turned on August 28 …"
Still, this was Preseason Week 3 – and the third preseason game is the biggest of the four. And it was on national television, so there was palpable pregame excitement at EverBank Field.
And the Jaguars certainly didn't want the following quote from Blake Bortles to sum up the game:
"We played pretty bad."
That was Bortles' quote at halftime, and not much said in the wake of the Jaguars' 26-21 victory summed it up much better than that. While the Jaguars did rally in the second half for their first victory of the preseason, it didn't feel much like a victory – and the Jaguars indeed played "pretty bad" during the all-important first half on Sunday.
They didn't run well. They didn't stop the run well. They had an early fumble that turned into points.
The offense that started so well in the first two preseason games didn't start well Sunday. And though the Jaguars had a good drive in the second quarter, that opportunity ended with a flurry of mistakes that turned a would-be touchdown into a field goal by Sam Ficken that caromed off the left upright to make it 14-3, Bengals.
And you know what? Bengals 14, Jaguars 3 was basically how this one felt.
Head Coach Gus Bradley afterward talked about it being "awesome" to get a victory.
"We appreciated that part of it," Bradley said.
But when discussing the first group, Bradley said the team obviously didn't start fast.
"We got punched in the mouth," he said. "This [Cincinnati] is a very good team and we knew that. They're strong up front on both side of the ball and we knew that. … We just didn't get our rhythm. …"
No, the Jaguars didn't get a rhythm and they sure didn't show a national television audience why they are considered one of the NFL's more talented young teams. It was easy to forget by halftime that this offense had looked tantalizingly potent in Preseason Weeks 1 and 2.
That was one theme Sunday.
Another may be that while the Jaguars are vastly improved, there is still road to cover before reaching elite status. Because make no mistake:
The Bengals team that controlled the first half on both lines of scrimmage absolutely is one of the league's elite rosters. They have made the playoffs each of the last five seasons for a reason – and their roster absolutely is good enough to contend for the Super Bowl this season.
In that sense it's perhaps not a surprise the Jaguars' offense didn't look qu-i-i-i-i-i-ite as world-beating as it did the past two weeks.
Still, even considering the quality of opponent there were things you didn't want to see Sunday.
Photos from the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars in week three of the preseason.
One was the continuation of a preseason-long trend of avoidable mistakes. The Jaguars had been penalized 25 times in two preseason games. On Sunday, they were penalized 11 more times and a penalty against fullback/linebacker Hayes Pullard III for failing to report as eligible negated his touchdown reception midway through the second quarter. That would have made it 14-7, Cincinnati. Instead, the Bengals retained a 14-3 lead after Ficken's field goal.
Another was the Bengals' quick early lead that extended through halftime. The Jaguars talked all offseason about starting fast. They did so in Preseason Weeks 1 and 2, but Sunday night felt a lot like 2015, when it felt in far too many games like the Jaguars were playing much too far uphill too early.
So, where do the Jaguars stand after Preseason Week 3?
Realistically, they're somewhere between Sunday's disappointment and the post-Bucs/post-Jets euphoria of the past two weeks. No, the Jaguars weren't smiling Sunday. Nor should they have been smiling. Still, what we saw in the first two preseason games is real. This is an improved team with a growing quarterback and a future that's still bright.
It's still a team with work to do. It's a team with potential and talent, but it's also a team with five new starters on defense, and at least three key players who never have played an NFL game. It's a team that's still young on offense.
It's a team with a chance to contend, a chance to push above .500 – but if it's going to do that, it must grow before our eyes. Though tantalizing and potentially thrilling, this is still a young team that must improve on the fly.
We knew that entering the preseason, and we still realistically knew it after the Jets and Bucs.
It just became a little more obvious on national television Sunday night.