INDIANAPOLIS -- The Jacksonville Jaguars should be better than the Indianapolis Colts. Their young quarterback isn’t as promising, but their rebuild is further along. Had they lost at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, I’d have asked how a team that's several years into a restructure lost to one that’s three games into its reformatting.
Instead, thanks to one giant play by one (still) unlikely source, the least popular team in the NFL snagged its first win of the season and headed back to Jacksonville feeling a degree of satisfaction about how hard work pays off with a hard-earned result.
The Jaguars rallied back from an 11-point halftime deficit to pull ahead in the fourth quarter. But Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri's 37-yard field goal with 56 seconds remaining looked like a back-breaker.
Then Blaine Gabbert dropped back on first-and-10 from his own 20, saw receiver Cecil Shorts moving from the right toward the middle of the field with the potential to split the safeties, and found him as he beat substitute nickelback Sergio Brown. Shorts snatched it and turned to the end zone, easily outrunning Antoine Bethea and Cassius Vaughn. Brown immediately hit himself in the helmet, knowing he’d blown it.
A run for the two-point conversion failed, but the defense made the 22-17 score hold up.
“Those are trust throws,” Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. “You’ve got to believe your receiver is going to be there. I mean, they’re bang-bang. It’s coming out and there’s not a lot of room for error.”
Said Shorts, deflecting credit: “It was Blaine, Blaine and the offensive line. He threw a great ball. He found the window, made the right read and threw a hell of a ball. He put that ball exactly where it needed to be. It kind of snuck up on me. He put a little mustard on it. Blaine did a hell of a job.
“With time, we are going to prove people wrong.”
There is a ton of national doubt regarding the Jaguars and a deep-seeded presumption of their badness, so it’ll take time to prove people wrong. And it’ll take more than a very narrow win over another very thin team.
This result, however, could be a formative moment for Jacksonville.
Every guy on every team is going to say that week’s opponent is a team that should be beaten. As I talked with Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, he stopped short of echoing my thinking that the Jaguars simply have to be ahead of the Colts right now to claim to be on track.
He did, however, lean on the same line a few times about how the Jaguars regard themselves compared to the Colts right now.
“We felt like this is one we should get,” said Posluszny, who picked off a gift from Andrew Luck but later allowed a big 39-yard completion to running back Donald Brown. “... We can’t get to 0-3. This is one we should win.”
Even with the 80-yard game winner, Gabbert posted pedestrian numbers: 10-of-22 for 155 yards. Luck hit on 12 more passes and amassed more than double the passing yardage.
Their offenses made different requests of the quarterbacks, though. The Jaguars got 177 rushing yards from Maurice Jones-Drew while Luck was clearly the most effective runner for the Colts.
As I looked at the Jaguars heading into the season, I thought a healthy version of the team could vie for an 8-8 record if Gabbert could be average. Still down two starters on the offensive line protecting him, he managed an 88.4 passer rating that rests right in that average neighborhood.
It’s hardly cause for a parade, but it’s progress. A year ago he was making the mistakes that killed his team’s chances. He didn’t do that here.
Still feeling the sting of a shellacking at the hands of Houston last week, Mularkey took a simple message to his team in its Saturday night meeting. It wasn’t about finding an 80-yard touchdown play at a key moment.
“We talked about reducing or eliminating our frustrating plays and increasing theirs,” Mularkey said. “They all know what those plays are. That was an important message last night. Decrease the number of frustrating plays that we’ve had in these last two games and increase the opponent’s. ... I think we got off to a good start with it.”
Colts coach Chuck Pagano rattled off a list of plays that fit just what Mularkey spoke of: stalled offensive drives, painful penalties, big plays allowed.
“This one is going to sit in the pit of their stomach, all of our stomachs, for quite some time,” said Pagano, who’s about to lead his team to its bye week.
Shifting frustrating plays wasn’t the only Mularkey message that got through.
Coming out of halftime, the discussion was to get an early score to stay close with the Colts. Jones-Drew took care of that, turning his team’s first possession of the second half into a one-play, 59-yard touchdown sprint.
The next message to get through has to do with Justin Blackmon. The rookie receiver is clearly pressing -- with drops a growing issue. Against a team with a better run defense, the Jaguars will have to throw more, and simply won’t be able to survive being so imprecise. Veteran receiver Laurent Robinson may be out awhile, as he left this game with a concussion.
“At the end of the day, winning validates all your hard work during the week,” Gabbert said. “It’s nice to feel a little success on Sunday.”
Hey, I’m not usually one to carve out a bad segment from the game to revise what could have happened. But I’ll suspend that for one moment here. Extract a bad final 20 seconds in Minnesota on opening day and the Jaguars are 2-1, not 1-2.
Three games in, they’ve had two tense finishes, and the second was better than the first. Everyone wants big strides, but you have to accept baby steps when they present themselves.
“That’s a typical NFL finish,” Mularkey said. “Up and down, up and down, up and down emotionally. ...
“They’ve busted their tails for three games and finally got rewarded for it. We talk about playing 60 minutes. We prefer not to end it that way like today. But we know now we can if we have to.”