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â Kaelib Washington (@Kaelib18) January 10, 2018
I know this is a Jaguars fan begging the question, but it raises one I asked myself as I left EverBank Field after last weekend’s scoring-starved win over the Buffalo Bills:
Can Jacksonville’s formula — a loaded defense dominating and hoping an offense and quarterback that have sputtered in recent weeks can do just enough — really win a title in this playoff field?
“I sure do hope so,” Jaguars star end Calais Campbell told me during a break in preparations for Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh. “I’m just worried about this one game. We’ll figure out the rest of it as it comes. We know we have to be very smart with the ball, we’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to own the line of scrimmage and we’ve got to make plays — make our plays. Hopefully, it works.
“We’re very confident, when we do it the right way, that we’re very, very good.”
The Jaguars were good enough last week to grind past the Bills 10-3 on a day when Blake Bortles had more yards rushing than passing, Leonard Fournette averaged an uninspiring 2.7 yards per carry and the offense sustained only one drive — a 15-play, 86-yard march featuring all of three pass attempts, ending in Jacksonville’s lone offensive touchdown over the past two games. Last time they visited Pittsburgh, in Week 5, the Jaguars‘ defense led the way, too, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times and returning two of the picks for touchdowns on the way to a 30-9 win, the high-powered Steelers‘ worst offensive performance this season.
Those are two of the eight games in which the Jaguars have allowed fewer than 10 points — twice as many as any other team this season, and tied for the third-most of any team since 2000, according to NFL Research. The Baltimore Ravens had 12 such games in 2000, and they won the Super Bowl. So did the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had eight such games. (The 2005 Chicago Bears did it nine times, went 11-5 and lost in the Divisional Round.)
The 2000 Ravens famously got their title with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Dilfer’s 76.6 passer rating that year was lower than Bortles’ 84.7 this season. So was Eli Manning‘s 73.9 with the 2007 Giants, Roethlisberger’s 80.1 with the 2008 Steelers and Peyton Manning’s 67.9 with the 2015 Broncos — all Super Bowl champs. Brad Johnson was more efficient, but he wasn’t exactly doing the heavy lifting with the 2002 Bucs, either.
Point is, if you want to buy into the Jaguars‘ chances, there is recent precedent for winning this way. These guys aren’t all household names, in part because last week was the first time Jacksonville has played on national TV all season, but Campbell, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, linebacker Telvin Smith and end Yannick Ngakoue, among others, are playing at a very high level. The Jaguars are among the NFL’s most disruptive defenses this season, ranking second in sacks (55) and interceptions (21) and tied for third in forced fumbles (17). On offense, Fournette topped 1,000 yards in Year 1, as the Jags led the NFL in rushing. They’re second in red-zone TD rate. Bortles had a three-game hot streak passing in December and his scrambling ability proved critical last week. After a brief preseason demotion, Bortles’ production was much improved from 2016, despite losing top receiver Allen Robinson to a torn ACL in Week 1 and ending the season without leading receiver Marqise Lee, who was targeted only once in his return from an ankle injury last week.
If you want to doubt the Jaguars even get out of Pittsburgh with a win — and none of the coaches or scouts I asked for a prediction this week believes they will — it really comes down to margin for error against high-octane teams like the Steelers, especially since Jacksonville’s weakness on defense has been stopping the run. The six teams that beat the Jaguars this season averaged 155.3 yards on the ground. Fall behind, and the Jags may be in trouble.
As one opposing coach who faced the Jaguars late this season put it: “The way the league is now, it’s so liberal in the passing game, you’ve got to score, man. It’s hard to win 10-3, 6-3. These quarterbacks and these skill players are so good today. I think you have to have a balance.
“If [the Steelers] can score and make Jacksonville a one-dimensional offense, I think it could be a long day for Jacksonville.”
Now, the Jaguars have scored; they ranked fifth during the regular season in points, though that number is boosted by a league-high seven defensive touchdowns. They averaged 35 points during that three-game run in December that secured their first playoff spot since 2007. They put up 33 the following week at San Francisco, but Bortles threw three interceptions in a shootout on a rare, ugly day for the Jaguars‘ defense, then two more the following week in a 15-10 loss at Tennessee in which Ngakoue scored the Jaguars‘ only touchdown on a 67-yard fumble return.
This past Sunday, the Bills focused on stopping the run and did that well for the most part, except that Bortles kept finding escape lanes and put up 88 yards on 10 carries. Buffalo used heavy disguise on defense, showing different looks to confuse Bortles’ pre-snap reads, and brought a lot of pressure in passing situations. Bortles missed some throws and finished 12-of-23 passing for 87 yards. Coach Doug Marrone acknowledged the Jaguars‘ offense never got into a rhythm: “Obviously, if you want to continue to keep playing, you are going to have to do a better job.”
The Steelers are better equipped to do what the Bills couldn’t: Get a lead, make the Jaguars air it out more on offense and turn loose even more pressure. Same goes for the Patriots, the likely opponent (on the road again) in the AFC Championship Game if Jacksonville does advance.
Of course, last time against the Steelers, the Jaguars‘ defense allowed them to play their type of game. Campbell downplayed pressure on the D right now, but it’s unavoidable when the past couple weeks suggest that unit might have to play a nearly perfect game Sunday.
“It’s playoffs, so mistakes can hurt you a little more. Just because it’s playoffs, every play is a little more critical,” Campbell said. “But we’ve got to play with that swagger, play loose, have fun and good things will happen.”
The Five Ws for the Divisional Round
WHO do you think are the front-runners to replace Bruce Arians in Arizona? (submitted by @Krysis_) The Cardinals‘ interview list has been eclectic, which makes it tough to peg. But I have spoken to multiple people in the know who believe Vikings OC Pat Shurmur is the front-runner. Worth remembering: Cardinals QB Carson Palmer just retired, and all three of Minnesota’s veteran QBs, including starter Case Keenum, are unsigned for 2018. Even if Arizona drafts a signal-caller high, there would be players available who know Shurmur’s system and could run it in the short term. Others to keep an eye on include Steelers OL coach Mike Munchak and Panthers DC Steve Wilks, who interviewed with Arizona on Wednesday.
WHAT are the odds the Jets go after Alex Smith? (submitted by vegas_sports) Any team with a QB need at least has to consider Smith, who — another early playoff exit notwithstanding — is coming off his best statistical season and has productive years left at age 33. His passing yards (4,042), TD-to-INT ratio (26:5) and passer rating (104.7) were all career bests. His numbers were much improved on deep throws. The questions are, what would it take to acquire him from the Chiefs? And what would it cost to extend Smith, who has one year and $17 million left on his contract? The Jets also have to figure out who’s running their offense in 2018 and whether they want to keep stringing along with veteran QBs, as they have throughout the Todd Bowles-Mike Maccagnan era while Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg have mainly ridden the bench.
WHEN will everyone stop disrespecting the VIKINGS? SMALL MARKET TEAM? (submitted by @troublecf23) WHY ARE WE YELLING? Coach Mike Zimmer and receiver Stefon Diggs remarked this week about people doubting them, too, but I hear the opposite from scouts and coaches. I bumped into one NFL executive last week who brought up — unprompted — how hard he thinks the Vikings will be to beat in the playoffs. Another exec predicted the Vikings win the Super Bowl, saying they’re the most well-rounded team in the field and have the best defense along with Jacksonville. “The reason people aren’t picking Minny is Case Keenum,” the second exec said. “I watched six games on the guy and he is playing at a Pro Bowl level.” Keenum even got an MVP vote in my annual awards poll last month. He makes his playoff debut Sunday against the Saints.
WHERE do the Colts go in the draft? Is Andrew Luck the answer if and when he returns? (submitted by @cptcavemannn) Pass rush and offensive line are two obvious targets when scouts look at the Colts‘ roster. But given what GM Chris Ballard inherited last year, it wouldn’t be a shock if they invested high picks anywhere besides safety and, yes, quarterback. They simply need more difference-makers to go with safety Malik Hooker, receiver T.Y. Hilton and Luck, whom the Colts expect to return from long-running shoulder issues in 2018. They also have a cheap backup QB option in Jacoby Brissett. The Colts‘ head-coaching hire will dictate a lot. Despite rumors otherwise, my understanding is Patriots OC Josh McDaniels remains squarely in the mix and it’s likely his job if he wants it. Can’t rule out Texans DC Mike Vrabel, either.
WHY does Hue Jackson still have a job, and why is it believed around the league that they tanked, again, for a No. 1 pick? (submitted by @thetransistors) I haven’t spoken to anyone in the league who has brought up tanking. People are just baffled by how any team, no matter how young or talent-challenged, can go 1-31 over two seasons. One thing the Browns‘ prior regime did well was amass assets. With new GM John Dorsey calling the personnel shots, along with former Green Bay running mates Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith and respected holdover Andrew Berry, the Browns are certainly better equipped to pick players with those five selections they have in the first two rounds, including Nos. 1 and 4 overall. They also project to have in the neighborhood of $110 million in salary cap space, per OverTheCap.com. I’ve written this part before: Keeping a holdover coach gives any new GM a one-year grace period on accountability. The record will be Jackson’s in 2018, and if it’s not good enough, Dorsey can move on and start keeping score the following year.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.