“One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.” ~ C.S. Lewis
Before finishing the season with two road tilts, the Jacksonville Jaguars needed a win in their home finale, before taking one of those roads out into the wilderness for the rest of the season.
A 6-8 record and a tie for second place in the division was on the line.
For optimal effect, the Jags needed the Texans to win in Indy. The Texans did their part, which would set up a potential Jacksonville/Houston battle for the AFC South title in Week 17.
But first, Jacksonville had to pull a win out.
The Atlanta Falcons, unfortunately, didn’t get the memo. They got the ball first, and drove 80 yards down the field in eighgt plays and 4:12, pushed by 44 yards from Julio Jones and FSU product Devonta Freeman knocking over the pylon as he crashed into the end zone on a 5-yard run. Matt Ryan: Six for six on the drive.
From there, the teams traded a pair of punts each, the action taking place on the Jaguars’ side of the 50. Bortles then went into Bortles Kombat mode, slinging the ball and letting Allen Robinson and Julius Thomas make key catches to get Jacksonville inside the ATL 30 by the end of the first.
The second quarter started off with Bortles on first down going deep to Thomas, who couldn’t catch up to a bomb in the end zone. The drive died two plays later; Jason Myers then hit a field goal from the 42.
A trading of punts followed, with each defense getting pressure on the opposing quarterback. The lull was broken with a second efficient Ryan drive, culminating in an 11-yard strike to Julio Jones, putting Atlanta up 14 to 3.
Another trading of punts, and Jacksonville had the ball inside its own 20 with 1:42 left. Bortles, in 2-minute mode, had the offense on the move against a soft Falcons zone, until throwing one of those classic poorly timed interceptions in the end zone. The interception, returned to the Jacksonville 14, set up a Falcons field goal that put Atlanta up 17 to 3.
The Jaguars, for a second week in a row, needed some magic in the final 30 minutes.
And they were getting it, chunk play by chunk play, on a nine-play, 4:20 drive that covered 80 yards and cut the Falcons’ lead in half. A Denard Robinson run for nine, followed by a Marcedes Lewis 26-yard pass, put Jacksonville at the Falcons’ 45. A Bortles strike to Allen Hurns for 20 put the Jaguars 24 yards from pay dirt. Bortles to Thomas for 17 gave Jacksonville first and goal. And from there, a defensive pass interference gave Jacksonville first and goal at the 1, setting up a Bortles bootleg for the touchdown.
Then, for the first time in the game, Ryan lived down to his recent reputation, serving up a pick to Paul Posluszny, giving Jacksonville the ball inside the 50 and all the momentum in the world, as Bortles drove the ball down the field in a drive that culminated with a Bortles strike to Allen Robinson that tied the game at 17.
The Falcons’ offense fired back, its season very much on the line. Jones made two clutch grabs on third and long plays as the road team crossed the 50. On another third and long, a well-timed DPI gave Atlanta a first down inside the Jags’ 40.
Despite such conversions, it was a drive of paradoxes for the Falcons. The running game wasn’t clicking. The passing game: out of sync. The Falcons punted the ball, sticking Jacksonville at its own 10, in a tied game through three quarters.
Jacksonville punted the ball back in short order, a three and out forced by an aggressive Falcons’ defense, as each team saw the shadows lengthen on the playing field, and their playoff hopes cloaked in encroaching darkness.
Ryan went deep to Jones, drawing a DPI on linebacker Telvin Smith, who was mysteriously attempting to cover the best wideout in the game. The penalty cost 31 yards and put the Falcons in business, setting up Ryan hitting short passes to Jones and Roddy White to get inside Jacksonville’s 15, where the drive stalled out three plays later.
A field goal put Atlanta up by 3. The Jags could do nothing with the ball, and punted the ball back to Atlanta with 8:26 left.
The Falcons discovered rookie wideout Justin Hardy as they drove down the field, killing clock until a pivotal third and 13 completion to White for 17 yards with three minutes left.
White, an afterthought for much of this season for Atlanta, turned up at the worst possible time.
Jacksonville, after the two-minute warning, finally held on a third and Long; Atlanta’s Shayne Graham looped in a 46-yard kick with 1:46 left.
The Jaguars could win with a touchdown … and an extra point, not a given with Myers.
A Bortles pass to Marquise Lee, was juggled and caught at the Falcons’ 40. Then Bortles hit Thomas for 10; the ball at midfield with over a minute left.
Then, four futile plays, lowlighted by a sack and a turnover on downs.
The Jaguars fell to 5-9, and all talk of an AFC South title for Jacksonville was quashed.
After the game, head coach Gus Bradley talked about the game that got away, sealing Jacksonville’s fifth straight losing season.
“This one stings,” Bradley said.
Not enough good plays. Struggles on offense in the first half.
“Just that fourth quarter.”
Nine minutes TOP in the fourth quarter. Four of six on third down.
“And it wasn’t like we were moving the ball tremendously either,” Bradley said.
Bradley’s voice, this time around, was filled with a little bit more resignation than after other losses. For those waiting for the happy talk buzz phrases, they weren’t there. And at the end of some of his answers, the upward lift in his voice suggested uncertainty.
“This team’s spirit, and this team’s will, you can count on that,” Bradley said about the hot start of the second half.
“We just didn’t execute well in the fourth quarter.”
They’re going to figure out how to start faster, get their special teams in order, and so on, before the next game, Bradley said.
Of course, that language is nothing new to those monitoring these post-game news conferences.
“I don’t want our team to get into ‘what ifs’; I want our team to get into ‘what’s now.’ ”
Now, of course, is 5-9.
Bortles, meanwhile, looked exhausted and sounded it, too.
The language: similar to that after so many of these losses, revolving around the theme of just getting better and just making plays.
Hope will rise again for this franchise, after another draft and another season of free agency.
For 2015, though, the only question is: Will this be another season of double-digit losses?