FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars were still talking when it was over, as the confetti fell on the New England players and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick celebrated their eighth AFC championship. The stage literally belonged to the Patriots inside Gillette Stadium -- with their delirious fans cheering them on -- but the Jaguars had something to say in their own right. Instead of the typical bravado that had become their trademark, they talked about missed opportunities, what might have been. They also mentioned something else worth noting: They're only just getting started.
The Jaguars will be the first to admit that their 24-20 AFC Championship Game loss wasn't some kind of moral victory. It was a devastating blow that will linger for a long time, one they might not ever get over. What they do believe is that it can serve as a useful tool for the future. For an upstart team that came within a game of reaching the Super Bowl after years of futility, they literally saw how good they've now become.
"The guys fought hard," Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We had a lot of heart. No matter the odds that were stacked against us, we kept our heads down and kept fighting. Today wasn't the outcome we wanted, but we left our heart out there. I wish we were going to the Super Bowl next week, but they made more plays than we did. But we also know we can do this. That's more motivation for us."
This was a sentiment echoed by many of Campbell's teammates. They heard all the talk about how hard it is to win in New England, especially at this stage of the playoffs. They also didn't care about skeptics, cynics or anything related to odds. The Jaguars came in with a pretty good idea of how they could win this game, which is why losing it stings all the more right now.
When they look back at this defeat, they'll see the same regrettable mistakes that plagued them at key junctures of this contest. Their dominant defense couldn't contain Tom Brady when it sorely needed to make a stop. Their offense went ultra-conservative in the second half after being far more creative in the first two quarters, primarily in the use of weapons like running back Corey Grant. You can even complain about the officiating if you want, as the Jags drew six penalty flags (for 98 yards) to New England's one (for 10 yards).
What is illogical is to think that Jacksonville didn't make an incredible impression on the football-watching world. The Jaguars led 14-3 in the first half before New England scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by James White late in the second quarter (a six-play, 85-yard drive that was aided by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and a 32-yard penalty for pass interference). They held a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, when outside linebacker Myles Jack forced a fumble by Patriots running back Dion Lewis and then recovered it with 13:37 left in the game. Hell, Jacksonville controlled the ball for 35 minutes and didn't turn it over once. As Jaguars safety Barry Church said, "We had it right there where we wanted it."
"The more I think about it, the more it will hurt," said Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone, who led Jacksonville to its first postseason berth since 2007. "Everyone in that locker room is thinking [about] what we could have done a better job of, including me. So it is tough. Outside of -- God forbid -- someone passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close [to that] pain that you will have. This is the pain you deal with when you lose football games. We have to deal with it, and it hurts."
Added Jack, who left the game with an ankle injury during what proved to be the winning drive: "It's hard to describe it. On the one hand, you say we could've won the game. Then on the other hand, you say Tom Brady is Tom Brady and we just got Tom Brady-ed again. I don't know how I'm going to diagnose it. I guess we have to get over it in the offseason."
This game really did come down to the Patriots having Tom Brady. He was the one playing with a right hand that required stitches after a collision in practice led to a laceration. Brady also was the guy who lost his best weapon -- Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski -- to a concussion late in the first half. If there was ever a time to take down a future Hall of Famer, the Jaguars couldn't have asked for better circumstances.
The problem was, they didn't have answers for Brady when it mattered. He finished Sunday's game 26-of-38 passing for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Brady also led the Patriots to that key touchdown late in the first half and delivered the game-winning points on a 4-yard scoring toss to Danny Amendola with 2:48 left in the contest. Basically, he did what he usually does -- he came through when his teammates needed him most.
Of all the things the Jaguars will take away from this defeat, it's that image of Brady making clutch play after clutch play that needs to stick with them. This isn't just about Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, either, as he played pretty well (23-of-36 passing for 293 yards and a touchdown). Whether the Jaguars stay with Bortles as their signal-caller or look to acquire a more accomplished veteran, such as Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins, in the offseason, they have to learn that winning at this level comes down to capitalizing on every last opportunity you receive. The Patriots are moving on once again because they specialize in exactly that.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, are going to be scary good for a few years. That defense has everything it needs to terrorize opponents, and there are plenty of talented players on offense, including rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns in three games this postseason. The more the Jaguars played on the national stage, the more we realized this team didn't lack for skill or confidence. Experience is what they needed most, and now they have the most beneficial type.
"As of now, it hurts," Campbell said. "It stings a lot, but I know we can win the big one. This team has everything it needs to win [the Super Bowl]. The whole world sees that. And if people don't see that, then something is wrong with them."
It's fair to think such words sound quite familiar. They are uttered by most teams that advance this far into the postseason, only to be left wondering how they could lose something that was so firmly within their grasp. The difference with the Jaguars is that their talk about using this defeat as fuel doesn't ring so hollow. In fact, it sounds like a team that will someday do more with the kind of opportunity it had on Sunday night.