JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars won't shock anyone next season.
A day after a disappointing loss to New England in the AFC championship game, players packed up their belongings and headed into the off-season. They carried with them more hope than heartache.
The Jaguars were one of the NFL's biggest surprises in 2017. They ended a six-year run with double-digit losses by winning the AFC South for the first time in franchise history.
They hosted a playoff game for the first time in 18 years, stunned Pittsburgh in the divisional round and had a 10-point lead on Tom Brady and the Patriots in the fourth quarter.
It was far from a fluke. With young and still-emerging talent on both sides of the ball, the Jaguars look poised to be a post-season participant for at least the next few years.
"Going forward, we know that this team is going to be a true contender and we're going to go out there and earn it," All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell said Monday.
Campbell was quick to point out that meeting higher expectations will only happen if they take the same approach to next season.
"You don't get nowhere off of what you did last year," he said. "It's only what have you done for me lately. I've been a part of a team that went to the NFC championship and the next year we missed the playoffs. It happens quite a bit. This team is definitely, I feel like, we should be able to go out there and be a great team next year, but we're going to have to put the work in."
Before the next phase begins, the Jaguars will have to get over a stinging loss at New England.
They surely will be haunted by four plays that were as much a part of the outcome as Brady:
—The league's best pass defence gave up a 21-gain on a third-and-18 play early in the fourth quarter. The Patriots went on to score a touchdown that cut the lead to 20-17.
—Linebacker Myles Jack stripped the ball from Dion Lewis at the end of a 20-yard gain in the third quarter. Jack picked up the fumble and started running the other way, but officials whistled the play dead. The Jaguars felt like it should have been a touchdown. Instead, the offence went three-and-out.
—With 55 seconds to play remaining in the first half and two timeouts, Jacksonville took a knee on consecutive plays instead of trying to make something happen.
"Let's get ourselves going and let's take this lead into halftime," coach Doug Marrone said. "That is exactly how I thought, right or wrong."
—Blake Bortles was flagged for delay of game — following a timeout, no less — and negated a 12-yard completion to Marcedes Lewis on a third-and-7 play in the second quarter. Instead of moving the chains and milking the clock, the Patriots got the ball back and scored a momentum-turning touchdown heading into the locker room.
"It was just a lapse on our part," Marrone said.
All of those contributed to Jacksonville's collapse.
By Monday, players and coaches had started to recover. Soon, they will turn the page.
"Getting there and showing the world that we can play good ball and be consistent against a good team like that and not fold under pressure was big," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "We answered a lot of critics now. People want to give us our respect; they don't have to. We proved a lot to ourselves, and I think we're going to continue to build from there."
Here are some other things to know about Jacksonville heading into the offseason:
QB DECISION: The biggest question centres on Bortles and his future . Jacksonville picked up the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, meaning he has one year remaining at $19.053 million. Bortles showed progress in 2017 and played well at times in the playoffs, but the Jaguars could decide they want to try to lure a free agent with fewer flaws to complement a dominant defence.
"I would love to be able to play here for as long as they would let me," Bortles said. "What they do and all the decisions that are made are kind of out of my control. I'd be thrilled to be able to stay here and play here, and hopefully that can happen."
MOVING ON: Jacksonville is likely to part ways with receiver Allen Hurns ($7 million) and running back Chris Ivory ($6.97 million), and they could lose cornerback Aaron Colvin and linebacker Paul Posluszny to free agency.
NEW LOOK: The Jaguars are expected to unveil new uniforms in April, making the two-tone helmets a collector's edition. The black-and-gold helmets were mostly mocked the last five years.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL