JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If it felt for a while Sunday as if the Jacksonville Jaguars were only holding off the New England Patriots, barely escaping being just another hapless victim in Tom Brady's comeback reel, well, that is not how they saw it. Other teams may wilt when the Patriots get on their inevitable rolls because they are undoubtedly intimidated by the history of those they are facing. The Jaguars, in fact, may have even been one of those kinds of teams in January, when they blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and watched the Patriots go to the Super Bowl instead of them.
"They ------- suck," an unidentified Jaguars player bellowed as he headed for the locker room after the game ended.
It might have been tempting to use the pastel rainbow that arched over the stadium as some kind of sweet metaphor for what the Jaguars found at the end of this game, but it simply does not fit with this team's personality. The Jaguars are brash, bold and, most importantly on Sunday, smart enough to have learned from how they lost the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots.
When it looked like Brady was about to abscond with their pot of gold again -- with a 21-point lead shrunk to 11 early in the fourth quarter, Brady just 24 yards away from closing the gap further and the January collapse still very fresh -- Dante Fowler came around Brady's right side and blasted the ball out of his hand. When the Jaguars might have again gotten conservative to preserve the lead instead of extending it, they instead challenged the spot of the ball that would have given the Patriots a first down with 8:01 left in the game, and as soon as they got the call reversed and received a punt, they called for a short pass from Bortles to Dede Westbrook that turned into a 61-yard touchdown that sliced through the Patriots defense.
"You have to be realistic," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "They're still the team at the top. It's only Week 2, but we did a great job of putting ourselves in position to take that over."
The Patriots, of course, do not ------- suck. They don't suck at all, in fact. So when the Jaguars built another big early lead and then slowly let it start leaking away with a fumble, followed by a badly timed three and out, and a big pass allowed, and then a Blake Bortles interception deep in their own territory, it was indisputably a crucible for a team whose local fan base is still haunted by the disputed call that Myles Jack was down after recovering a fumble in the AFC Championship Game.
Jack admitted last week that this was the biggest game of his life and it was no less important for the Jaguars. Jack had said during the offseason that he had allowed himself to get "hypnotized" by Brady in the AFC Championship game. That happens to a lot of Patriots opponents, but for a team that has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, this was a hurdle -- mental as well as physical -- that had to be cleared and cleared cleanly.
"When you've got a guy like Tom Brady, we've seen what happened last year," said safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. "Obviously as a defense, you get tight a little bit. This guy has done it time and time and time again. You can never put it past him. He is truly the best quarterback to lace them up. When they started getting that momentum, it's a scary feeling because you know who they have at the helm. We're a confident group of guys over here. We wanted it to be on our shoulders."
On Gipson's shoulders was the most critical matchup of the game, with tight end Rob Gronkowski. While the pre-game anticipation was for verbose cornerback Jalen Ramsey to be on Gronkowski, the Jaguars put Gipson on him instead. Gronkowski had two catches for 15 yards. Even though Brady finished 24 of 35 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, the frustration level of the offense was such that, at the end of the first quarter, with the Jaguars already leading 14-0, television cameras caught a red-faced offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels screaming at the offense and Brady furiously pointing to his head and screeching "Do your job!"
"A lot of people wanted to see the matchup with Jalen and I apologize because I didn't give them that," Gipson said. "I never met a tight end I don't feel like I can cover. I was excited about it. He probably wasn't as excited because I'm just Tashaun Gipson."
The Patriots have a long, richly-rewarded history of correcting early-season foibles in time for a late season push into the playoffs. This game will present plenty of opportunities for that. After Trey Flowers left early in the game to be checked for a concussion, the Patriots struggled to get any pressure on Blake Bortles. The defense was gashed for big plays. Brady spread the ball around but if Gronkowski is contained, there is no reliable go-to weapon. Jackson said at the end of the game he could sense Brady was frustrated.
To imagine that the Jaguars and the rest of the AFC won't have to contend again with the Patriots in a few months is absurd -- their comeback attempt fell short today, but the frisson of fear they briefly struck in the Jaguars defense would shake teams that don't share the Jaguars' healthy sense of self-confidence.
For now, though, the Jaguars get to enjoy the spoils of a win that was as important for their psyches as anything that happened last season. Ramsey, who spent the offseason offering an opinion of practically everyone and everything in the NFL, was giddy in his praise of his teammates after this game, but wouldn't take the bait when given the chance to critique the Patriots or offer an assessment of what this meant for the Jaguars writ large.
He didn't really need to say much anyway. This was a statement game by the Jaguars, and, fittingly, it was a loud one. "Typically, they want us to say no," Jack said. "But this was a big one."