JACKSONVILLE – We'll begin today by sharing a holiday secret:
The Jaguars won't be a secret much longer.
It feels that way on Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve, doesn't it – that as Santa and his eight rodents prepare for their annual worldwide flight, the Jaguars are oh-so close to being the NFL's most inexplicably overlooked team no more?
Not that the whole "overlooked" thing is a topic this week for Doug Marrone.
No, the Jaguars' head coach has just one objective these days – and it's not about ho ho hos, wreathes or sleigh bells.
"Win, and win the division," Marrone said when asked his focus as the AFC South-leading Jaguars (10-4) prepared to play the San Francisco 49ers (4-10) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, Sunday at 4:05 p.m.
Indeed, that's the only goal. The Jaguars can clinch the AFC South title with a victory Sunday – or with a Tennessee Titans loss to the Los Angeles Rams – and the possibility of the first division title in 18 years was far more of a topic this week than respect or lack thereof.
"That's all that matters – going up to San Fran and doing our job," linebacker Myles Jack said.
But as the Jaguars focus on that goal, there are also a couple of underlying feelings you get talking to Jaguars players. One is that the respect and recognition they crave is close. The other is that they're not worrying about is quite so much because they're really close to having their chance earn it.
And in some cases, the respect already is starting to show:
The Jaguars are being discussed nationally …
You're hearing an analyst here or there talk about them having Super Bowl hopes …
And yes, getting four players to the Pro Bowl was cool…
Still, there also was a feeling Wednesday of players unfairly being left out of the Pro Bowl. With that came a feeling that there is still much to be done, much left to prove.
"You're starting to hear our name, but we're not getting as much love as I would like us to have," Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We lead the league in rushing? And no one goes to the Pro Bowl from the offensive line? We still have respect to be earned. That's how it goes."
Here's the cool thing about the NFL, and this is something you heard a lot this week in the locker room:
There is ample opportunity to earn respect. That opportunity comes with getting in the playoffs and winning there. The Jaguars took one step toward that last week by clinching the South. They can take another Sunday. They can take bigger ones in the weeks that follow.
"I tell the guys all the time: When it comes to respect, if we reach our goals all of that's going to come," Campbell said. "If we accomplish our goals, at the end of the year we won't have to ask for anything. It will be given."
Win in the playoffs, and no one can say what you aren't.
They must accept – and respect – what you are.
"That's something you earn with getting in the playoffs, continuing to win in the postseason," middle linebacker Telvin Smith Sr. said. "You earn it through action."
Indeed, the postseason is very much on the minds of Jaguars players now. Not that they're looking past Sunday and the still-undone task at hand, but the idea that there are bigger goals than just making the postseason is a very real idea to these players.
And why shouldn't that be the case? Why not the Jaguars?
Those questions become more legitimate by the week. This team won at Pittsburgh, 30-9. This defense can fluster any quarterback. Quarterback Blake Bortles is the NFL's best December quarterback. The offensive line is improving.
The pieces are there, and the belief and the confidence? Well, those have been there for a while.
The Jaguars won't be the AFC favorites. But neither should they be overlooked – and this darned sure isn't a two-team conference.
The Jaguars aren't there yet; they haven't even clinched the division yet. But as Marrone said this week, this is indeed a different team. It's not surprised to be here, and the Jaguars won't enter any situation in the coming weeks with a thought that they don't belong.
Nor should they. They're good. And they know it.
They have a chance to go deep in the postseason and they know that, too.
They'll get the chance to prove themselves right – and if they do, they'll get all the respect and acknowledgement they so desire.
"The season's just really starting right now," Jack said. "I really believe once the season's said and done, people are going to be talking about the Jacksonville Jaguars."
And if so, they sure won't be a secret anymore.