The trajectory of a typical 21st century Jacksonville Jaguars season is familiar.
Hope, during the draft, and the free agency class, and the preseason, as the best case scenarios swirl.
Then reality hits.
Not all at once, but like 16 punches to the face.
The Jaguars had felt the full impact of eight of them this year, coming into a home showdown against the Matt Hasselbeck led Indianapolis Colts.
On Sunday, they gave it to another team on the chin, for a change, riding a 42-point second half to a 51-16 throttling of the perpetual AFC South champs and current division leaders.
The Jags, though it’s 80 degrees here with September humidity, wore the black jerseys, showing swagger while gashing the Colts linebackers with a balanced offensive script: two passes to tight ends, three gashing T.J. Yeldon runs getting Jacksonville in field goal range two minutes into the game. The drive then stalled out, as they tend to do sometimes, though Jason Myers got the field goal, as he tends to do sometimes.
At 3:43 into the game, and Jacksonville was up by three.
The Colts came out strong in response. What stands out watching Hasselbeck from the press box is how he sees the defense, as seen with the pop fly pass that T.Y. Hilton caught for a 57-yard gain. Nothing on the ball at all but touch (no torque), and he saw Hilton make the play before it was made.
The Colts’ drive stalled out; 3-3 midway through the first.
Bortles dropped back to pass the first play of the next drive, and got rocked. The Colts were in the backfield on the next play, forcing Bortles to throw wild to his first read, setting up third and long at their own ten.
The incompletion, on a four yard play-it-safe out route. The narrative established: would the Jags have a counter for the Colts’ defensive pressure?
An exchange of punts followed, the perfect Holiday stocking stuffer, before another catastrophic Jaguars 3 and out culminated with a sack of #5 and the Colts, yet again, in good field position.
Hasselbeck found third down back Zurlon Tipton on a swing pass for 27, pushing Indianapolis near field goal range. Another nice completion to T.Y. Hilton put the Colts at the Jags’ 11 as the second quarter began and the field flipped.
The Colts’ drive stalled; the cycle repeated; the fourth 3 and Out of the game blossomed forth, like a mushroom in a flooded yard, as seemingly inevitable as the fulfillment of prophecy.
The two offense traded salvos of ineptitude, broken up by a catch and run by Hilton for 41 yards and an Indianapolis drive that got them on the Jaguars’ side of the field before dying like the dreams of childhood.
The requisite punt, then an inauspicious start of the Jags’ drive, at their own five.
A 95 yard drive to end the quarter would have been one of those moments that Jags’ mythology needs more of.
Instead, Bortles bobbled the snap. The ball floated into the end zone and was recovered by Robert Mathis.
Down by 10, the Jags’ offense started to pop in two minute mode, highlighted by a 38 yard chuck to Julius Thomas to get Jacksonville into field goal range before another Bortles fumble, this time in the pocket. Indy returned the ball to the Jags’ 34.
Then Andre Branch answered back, getting a hit on Hasselbeck, stripping the ball then running it in to bring Jacksonville within four before the half closed.
Bortles: 7 for 17. 104 yards. 2 fumbles. Allen Robinson: a non-factor through 30 minutes.
And on the Jags’ first play of the third quarter, the ugliness of the first half was seemingly negated. Allen Hurns with a 80 yard catch and run, combined with a completed extra point, gave Jacksonville a three point lead.
The Jags’ defense held. And then Rashad Greene brought back the punt 71 yards for the second big play of the first 191 seconds of the quarter.
Jacksonville, up 10, was on the verge of a statement game. For this coaching staff, it was needed now more than ever.
The momentum surged in the crowd; an electricity and exuberance in their reactions. The ritualized effects of the scoreboard and the public address system had buy in. And then Hasselbeck found Moncrief down the sideline for 34, setting up a Colts’ drive inside field goal range.
Another Hasselbeck pass found its target (Hilton) inside the twenty, but then a Jags’ rush closed in on the 40 year old quarterback. Roy Miller’s weight pushed his head back, stretching his neck out in a way beyond the capacity of vertebrae, and bringing third stringer “Checkdown” Charlie Whitehurst into the game.
Checkdown Charlie was just the gift that the Jags’ defense needed, as the Colts’ drive went backwards before the field goal.
Soon thereafter, on a play when Marquise Lee drew a DPI penalty inside the red zone, T.J. Yeldon was helped off the field, leaving it to Denard Robinson to run the ball close to the goal line. A 12 yard Denard Robinson run got them within the five, a 4 yard pass to Allen Robinson put Jacksonville up by 2 TDs, 30 to 16.
Hasselbeck was back out for the next drive, a glorious 3 and Out, and the game was shaping up to be one of those late season bursts of hope that mediocre franchises cling to. A nasty 31 yard run by Denard Robinson was a highlight of the next Jaguars drive, which culminated in a Julius Thomas touchdown catch (Bortles’ 30th TD of the year) that put the Jags up 37-16 after the extra point.
Hasselbeck did his damnedest to will the Colts down the field, but a Jags defender, in chasing the quarterback out of bounds, took advantage of a gray area between legality and morality and got a late hit in that knocked Hasselbeck out of the game with a “rib injury.”
For the first time in four years, the Jaguars hadn’t gotten blown out by the Colts in Jacksonville. The 51-16 win put them one game out of second place, and 1.5 out of first pending the Houston Texans game against the Indianapolis Colts.
It was a “big win.” But at the same time it felt anomalous, like the Eagles beating the Patriots a week prior. Even with the 51 coming on the heels of 39 in a loss in Nashville the previous week.
However, they see the wounded Atlanta Falcons for the home finale next week; the Falcons, getting destroyed by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, looked to be a team that packed it in.
Are the giddy heights of 6-8 within reach for the Jacksonville Jaguars? Could they be one game out at the end of this Sunday night? Does this guarantee another year of the Gus Bradley era?
Could 7-9 win this division?
Open questions, all.
After the game, Jaguars’ coach Gus Bradley spoke on how the team did well in “all three phases” what drove the second half turnaround after “adversity in the first half.”
Saying he felt like this was a “really good week of practice,” Bradley then linked what happened to the larger goal.
“We’re trying to create a standard,” Bradley said, sounding like he would if the team had lost by 35 instead of won by that number.
At halftime, surprisingly, Bradley didn’t say much, just feeling that “we’ll get it together” on offense.
And they did.
Bradley exuded energy, and as he was asked if he’d ever been happier as Jaguars coach, the power surged and the lights turned out.
A sign of his energy? Or that JEA was playing hardball?
Bortles was in high spirits also.
“It’s good to get a complete game,” he said of the “touchdowns in all three phases of the game.”
Asked about his “chemistry” with receivers, Bortles said it came down to repetitions and the receivers’ “toughness.”
Bortles, when asked about being practically booed off the field after the botched snap, then their reaction as the game became a blow out said “that’s what fans do.”
When asked about Bradley at halftime, meanwhile, Bortles said that he was the same as he ever is.
And that’s why, he added, the team loves Bradley.
“I think everybody feeds off of him” and “100 percent believes in him.”
He came in, Bortles said, after a rough half and “gave a speech he would have gave” if the team had played its best half.
The media may not get it consistently. And the fans may not either. But the team and the coach seem to.