FOXBORO, Mass. – And so it ends …
The Jaguars' magical, memorable joyride of a 2017 season ended where so many AFC teams' seasons have ended for much of the last two decades – on a gray, chilly Massachusetts evening courtesy of a maddeningly dynastic quarterback, head coach and franchise.
New England Patriots 24, Jaguars 20.
And so it ends … just like that – and after it was over Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone did what he could to provide perspective.
"It's hard," Marrone said after the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (15-3) rallied from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to beat the AFC South Champion Jaguars (12-7) at Gillette Stadium Sunday evening. "The more I think about it, I think the more it will hurt – and the more it will weigh on my mind about what we could have done better.
"Everybody in that locker room right now is thinking, 'What could we have done a better job of to win the game?' It's tough."
"Outside of, God forbid, someone passing away that you're close to, this is probably the closest pain that you'll have," Marrone said. "It's something we have to deal with. It hurts and it stays with you a long time."
Yes, that was Marrone's mood – and the mood of the entire Jaguars' locker room. Understandably so.
The Jaguars were close – in fact, they hardly could have been closer. They led by 11 points in the first half. They led by 10 points in the fourth quarter. They had a chance to force a Patriots punt with that 10-point lead, but Tom Brady – the aforementioned dynastic quarterback – completed a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Danny Amendola on 3rd-and-18.
The Patriots cut the double-digit lead to three with a nine-yard pass to Amendola four plays later, and the Jaguars never could stop momentum after that.
A four-yard touchdown from Brady to Amendola with 2:48 remaining gave the Patriots their first lead since the second quarter, and a late Jaguars drive ended when quarterback Blake Bortles threw incomplete to Dede Westbrook.
And then it was over.
Images of the AFC Championship as the Jaguars take on the New England Patriots.
So suddenly. So shockingly. So painfully.
When magical NFL seasons end short of a Super Bowl title, they end fast and they end hard – and they end smashing on the rocks of what might be once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gone unfulfilled.
Forget what might be to come for this Jaguars team – and indeed there seem good things to come. That's not the emotion in the immediate aftermath when a season ends a victory from the Super Bowl, and it wasn't the Jaguars' emotion Sunday.
No, this one hurt – and nothing about a glorious season just past and what seems to be a bright, bright future lessened that pain. At least not for the moment.
There are no moral victories in conference championship games, and this damned sure wasn't that Sunday for the Jaguars. The Jaguars expected to win this game. They believed they would win.
Yes, they had the dynastic coach/quarterback duo of Bill Belichick and Brady, a duo that accounted for the five Super Bowl banners that hang in Gillette Stadium.
And that combination was part of why the Jaguars' season ended Sunday. Brady on Sunday was Brady, completing 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and he two fourth-quarter touchdowns to Amendola. The Jaguars are as talented as the Patriots in many areas, but a quarterback on the level of Brady trumps a lot of talent. All-timers tend to do that – and Brady did it Sunday even with the Patriots' other Rushmore player – tight end Rob Gronkowski – missing the entire second half with a head injury.
Yes, the Jaguars may well represent the NFL's future. Brady on Sunday showed again why he and the Patriots are the best of the present and recent past.
Brady wasn't the only reason the Jaguars lost Sunday.
They lost because opportunities were lost, and it is those opportunities that will hurt. The offense managed just one first down on three fourth-quarter drives when first downs were needed to drain clock. A running game that was effective in the first half struggled in the second.
And because they lost, the joy around the Jaguars came to a crushing end. Part of the lure of the NFL is only one team holds the big silver trophy each February. That's what makes attaining it matter so much. It's also what makes this a cruel sport at times.
In time, that cruelness goes away. And in time, the disappointment Jaguars players and fans felt Sunday night will fade. When that happens, players and fans will remember this season the way it should be remembered as one of the most successful and important in franchise history, a season when a rollicking, confident trash-talking group of talented players put a decade of disappointment in the rearview and changed the perception of a long-struggling franchise.
That day will come soon, but Sunday wasn't that day.
On Sunday, all that was left when the Jaguars left the locker room and headed for the bus was the knowledge that a magical season had ended 60 minutes too soon.