Glimmers of hope. That’s what Jaguars fans were reduced to looking for, as the team sat at 1-5 before a London tilt against E.J. Manuel and the Buffalo Bills.
Though Jaguars owner Shad Khan gave coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell public assurances that no midseason changes were in the offing, Jacksonville fans haven’t been quite as accommodating to that vote of confidence as the local media.
Game 7 looked winnable from the outset. The Bills’ skill player roster, largely reduced to backups at quarterback and wide out. And the Jags showed signs of life early on.
A deep catch in the first quarter by tight end Julius Thomas, though overturned by a penalty, showed that “well, that route is there.”
Also from the first quarter: a coverage sack on Manuel by Tyson Alualu led to a punt and decent field position for the Jags’ offense.
And then Bortles’ play action, set up by the credible threat Yeldon poses, fooled the Bills, setting up lasers down the field as the first quarter worked toward its close, and then an emphatic slant to Allen Robinson for six.
Then, the first defensive touchdown of the year, off a fumble. forced by a blindside smack on EJ Manuel. Then, the second: a Telvin Smith pick 6 of his fellow Seminole alum.
Three touchdowns in less than three minutes. You can imagine the exultation among the Jacksonville “Economic Development” delegation members who had made great sacrifices to slog across the Atlantic for a whole week.
Then… yet another pick, by Paul Posluszny of Manuel.
And soon afterwards, on 3rd and 1, Manuel dances through a hole… then darts for a 28 yard touchdown.
The Jags, at the halfway point in the second quarter, were in unfamiliar territory. A game that appeared over in the second quarter, against an overmatched quarterback and with all of their skill players on the field.
Though the Bills made a mini run at the end of the quarter, the Jags started the second half with the ball and a two touchdown lead.
Looked good! But we’ve all seen Jaguars football by now.
The Bills’ highly touted run defense looked tentative, as Yeldon was able to make cuts and get to the second level as the third quarter began.
All was well for the Jags until 1st and goal at the 1 yard line. The Jaguars inexplicably ran plodder Toby Gerhart up the gut four times. They came away with nothing, except 9:30 off the game clock.
This set up Manuel marching the Bills back down the field to a first and goal… which they couldn’t convert either, setting up a chip shot field goal as the second play of the final quarter.
Jags give the ball back quickly, of course, generously setting up the Bills near their own 40, and playing soft pass defense to allow Manuel, whom they handled for the first half of the game, to immediately push them over midfield.
Stomachs began to tighten up in Dirty Duval, and with LeSean McCoy looking poised to dart into the end zone, a sea of black jerseys and helmets consumed him, sending him to the turf and spurting the ball out.
As he clutched his helmet, waiting for assistance, the Jaguars got the ball and 15 yards more off an illegal block penalty on Buffalo.
The fourth Bills giveaway of the game; a seeming stake through the team’s collective heart.
But you can never count a Jaguars’ opponent out.
Curious decisions, like running Gerhart four times near the goal line, then running Tyson Alualu on third and short, were reminiscent of Jack Del Rio in their Paleozoic meatheadedness.
And their bitter harvest was reaped when Manuel found Marcus Easley for 60 yards down the sideline for six, bringing the Bills within five.
Then McCoy ran the ball up the gut for the two point conversion.
So the Jaguars, once up 27-3, were reduced to a three-point lead.
The offense sputtered again, quickly working its way into a 3rd and 11… and ths signature play of the Bortles repertoire: a backbreaking pick 6 that put the Bills up by four.
Then, incredibly, Bortles worked magic. Driving the Jags down the field, throwing a rope to Allen Hurns at the goal line, who dove through the pylon to make the score.
2:16 left, and the Jags held a three-point lead.
And, miracle of miracles, the Jaguars’ defense held, permitting the now 2-5 Jags to close the game out in Victory Formation, setting up the bye week on a note of redemption.
Albeit, one with footnotes.
The question for Jags fans: will the team build on this after the bye week?
That’s the bet Shad Khan has committed to, and the one we all get to watch over the next nine games.