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Jags are once, twice, three times a loser
In years to come, this will be remembered as Jacksonville's Super Bust season.
And when the Jaguars are finished sorting through the turnovers, the dropped passes and the missed opportunities that littered their loss Sunday, they'll boil it down to one simple explanation: they couldn't beat the Tennessee Titans.
The Jaguars went out with six turnovers and 100 yards in penalties, but without much of a fight in the AFC Championship game.
Their 33-14 loss dropped them to 0-3 for the season against their newest, most prickly rival. It's that mark that kept the Jaguars (15-3) from making it to the Super Bowl the only acceptable destination this season for a team with so much talent.
"We've got to look at our personnel and see where we don't quite measure up,'' said coach Tom Coughlin. "I mean, we win the division and we lose to them three times. I don't take a lot of satisfaction in that.''
Just as they did last week in a 62-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars started strong. A five-play touchdown drive gave them a 7-0 lead and led a frenzied crowd at Alltel Stadium to believe it was in for more of the same.
But the Titans certainly aren't the Dolphins.
And the Jaguars clearly aren't ready for the Super Bowl.
It seemed as though every mistake and weakness that allowed inferior opponents to keep games close all season showed up against the Titans, who are clearly thrilled to trade the AFC Central title for a trip to the Super Bowl.
The mistakes were small, like the four dropped passes, the inexplicably wasted timeouts and the penalties that nullified plays and kept Jacksonville in poor field position all day.
They were big, too, like Mark Brunell's two interceptions, part of a mind-boggling six turnovers that left them at minus-7 in their three failed meetings against Tennessee.
The Jaguars went plus-17 in turnovers against everyone else this year.
"It would be crazy for any guy in this locker room to say that Tennessee is better than us,'' said Fred Taylor, who finished with 110 yards and was one of the few Jaguars who could dare to boast. "You've got to give them credit, but you just can't turn the ball over the way we did.''
Adding to the mistakes was Jacksonville's inability to take advantage of the silly plays Tennessee made.
The Titans committed four turnovers of their own, including Jevon Kearse's inexplicable lateral in the fourth quarter that kept the Jaguars breathing, still trailing 26-14.
Jacksonville recovered the fumble, but answered with a stillborn drive that ended with Brunell's second interception.
"We left a lot of regrets on the field out there today and when you're playing in the championship game, you don't want to leave any regrets out there,'' Coughlin said. "You want to be at your very, very best and we weren't.''
Brunell finished 19-for-38 for 226 yards. His first interception came in the Titans end zone with the Jaguars hoping to gain momentum early in the second quarter after an interception of their own a few plays previous.
The pick was eerily reminiscent of the one Brunell threw to Willie Clay three years ago, trailing 13-6 in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game in New England.
"You get down there, you can't make those mistakes,'' Brunell said. "That would have been a big boost for us.''
Like the team, the quarterback had supposedly developed and matured in the past three seasons. But in the biggest game of all, neither the quarterback nor the team showed the heart of a Super Bowl challenger.
Thus, a season that began with Super Bowl expectations closed one victory short.
Coughlin didn't completely buy into the Super Bust theory.
"I think a lot of good things happened,'' he said. "The defense was greatly improved. The running game was No. 1 in the league. We continued to develop young players. You're not going to win 15 games without being a pretty darn good football team.''
But the 15 wins seemed to come too easily, maybe because none of them came against Tennessee.
Because of that, the window of opportunity for a young, talented team grew a little more narrow.