INDIANAPOLIS -- It's hard to believe that the Jacksonville Jaguars are in this situation after being a few plays away from the Super Bowl in January: fielding questions about making sure players don't check out.
After Sunday's 29-26 loss to Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Jaguars' fifth in a row, that's where the franchise stands. Jacksonville is last in the AFC South, winless in three division games, and at this point a .500 record might be a stretch.
It's a huge disappointment for a team that had high expectations -- some of which were self-imposed -- and instead of entering the final two months of the season thinking about playoff seeding, the Jags are pending time denying that their season is pretty much over.
"We know we can't get down in the dumps because it's going to get a whole lot worse [if they do]," defensive tackle Abry Jones said. "We've been losing; some game we've been blown out, this last one we were fighting. At least we're fighting.
"I feel like you've got to have the optimism and stuff like that, because if you don't, next thing you go out there and there's going to be no more fight. It's just us getting our butt whooped. That's [the optimism] there. People are believing, and we're ready to fight, and we just got to get back to the drawing board and get it done."
The Jaguars (3-6) realistically had to beat the Colts (4-5) to have a chance in the AFC South. The return of running back Leonard Fournette after a five-week absence because of a hamstring injury, the league's No. 1 pass defense, and an easier second-half schedule buoyed their hopes. They're not mathematically eliminated after the loss, but essentially ... they're pretty much done.
Yet players surprisingly were upbeat and denied that there's anyone in the locker room who would check out or give less than 100 percent effort over the final seven games.
"You still get paid," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "And if you're coming out here and you're collecting a check and not giving your all, then shame on you. And we have the leaders on the team, so nobody's going to give up. We're out here to do a job and we're going to try to do the best we can and in our minds the season isn't over.
"If you want to be a loser and act like, 'Oh, it's not going my way; it's not going the way I wanted it to go, shame on me,' then hell, you can have that scenario, but we're not like that."
Defensive end Calais Campbell was the ultimate optimist despite what has happened since October began. He's emphatic that the Jaguars' goals are not gone -- provided they go undefeated the rest of the season.
"It's probably going to take 7-0 for us to go where we want to go, but is it possible? Without a doubt," Campbell said. "Teams have [done it] before? Yes. And that's what it's going to take. Can this team do it? I believe we can. If we play like we played the second half I believe we can. It all comes down to doing it, and that's to be determined. But this team is very capable of doing it."
Surprisingly, that's not as rare as you'd think. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 17 teams since 1998 have finished the regular season winning at least seven consecutive games.
However, since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978 only four teams that started 3-6 or worse went on to make the playoffs since. The 2012 Washington Redskins are the last team to start 3-6 and then win their final seven games. They won the NFC East and lost in the wild-card round that season.
It has happened to this franchise before. The 1996 Jaguars started 3-6 then won six of their final seven and squeaked into the playoffs thanks to Morten Andersen's missed chip-shot field goal attempt in the season finale.
That team, however, had much more offensive talent than this year's version, including the best quarterback (Mark Brunell) and best two receivers (Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell) in franchise history. The Jaguars just don't have those kind of explosive playmakers now.
Fournette scored two touchdowns and had 109 yards of total offense against the Colts, but he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry and 3.8 yards per touch. The Jaguars had only two offensive plays longer than 20 yards: Moncrief's 80-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown and Fournette's 31-yard screen pass.
The Jaguars still managed 415 yards, but it didn't matter after receiver Rashad Greene Sr. fumbled at the Colts 23-yard line with 1:30 to play. And now players are talking about not giving up despite the huge -- and unlikely -- task in front of them.