JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Gus Bradley pictured himself walking off EverBank Field for the first time as a winning coach, this probably wasn’t what he had in mind.
A quarterback who barely threw for more yards in the second half than a rookie wide receiver who struck it rich on a gadget play. A running game forced to go without Maurice Jones-Drew down the stretch. A defense hanging on for dear life against a team that gave a chance to a guy ready to be run out of town a few weeks ago.
And finally, a game-clinching sack by a defensive end who was signed from the practice squad in November.
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Almost three months after their regular season began in inauspicious fashion, and not even a month after there was talk that they might go 0-16, the Jacksonville Jaguars can see a light at the end of the tunnel. OK, so there are more bridges than tunnels in Jacksonville, but you get the point.
Their 27-20 victory Thursday night over the penalty-prone Houston Texans was the fourth for them in the past five weeks. And not that anyone in their locker room took note of this, but they scored more points in the win (27) than they managed in their previous four home games combined (25). Jacksonville was the “home” team in a 42-10 loss to the 49ers in London.
“It really is a credit to our players,” Bradley said. “For what they’ve gone through and then to stick to it and have some results go their way, it’s pretty cool.”
The coolest moment came a little more than halfway through the third quarter, moments after Jones-Drew had broken five tackles on his way to a 48-yard run. Chad Henne stepped back from center and threw a lateral to Ace Sanders, who made sure the first pass of his NFL career would end up in the hands of a ridiculously wide-open Jordan Todman.
Not even a week after Jones-Drew had lofted something of a wounded duck to Marcedes Lewis for a touchdown at Cleveland, Sanders took Bradley’s philosophy of “be bold” to a new level. He also took quite a ribbing when he returned to the sideline.
“I just wanted to make sure I had the ball,” he said. “I saw Todman, and he was wide open. I was, ‘I just don’t want to mess this up.’ “
The Jaguars almost messed up a good thing as their young and injury-riddled secondary was picked apart by another quarterback of dubious stature. Last week, it was Brandon Weeden. On this night, it was Matt Schaub, who relieved Case Keenum in the third quarter and reminded a national television audience why more than a few experts thought the Texans might be Super Bowl contenders this season.
But just when a galling defeat seemed imminent, the Jaguars got an interception from outside linebacker Geno Hayes with 2:08 remaining. The pick set up Josh Scobee’s second field goal of the night. And when Ryan Davis sacked Schaub for a loss of 18 with the Texans out of timeouts, the celebration could begin in earnest.
“Everybody feels good,” said Cecil Shorts III, whose 6-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter gave the Jaguars their first 14-point lead in more than a year. “It’s an upbeat locker room. It’s been upbeat all year. But to win four out of five and three in a row, you definitely feel a sense of accomplishment.”
A lot of credit for that goes to Bradley. Somehow he remained as enthusiastic as ever through injuries to key players and loss of wide receiver Justin Blackmon to a pair of suspensions.
“He’s been doing a good job of just keeping our spirits up,” Sanders said. “From the beginning of the season all the way to this point, we’ve been the same. And it’s starting to pay off now.
“It would have been special if we could have started the season like this. But sometimes stuff takes time. You’ve got to keep your head up and wait it out and keep battling.”
Now the Jaguars are winning more of those battles, and Bradley couldn’t be more delighted.