Every rational American who is not a Patriots fan—I could just say “every rational American,” I suppose—should root for the Jacksonville Jaguars in this weekend’s AFC championship game. The Patriots are the pinnacle of football success, as this is their seventh straight season playing on Championship Sunday. The Jaguars are a literal punch line on NBC’s The Good Place, a franchise so linked to ineptitude and failure that a writers’ room decided a national audience that doesn’t necessarily care about football would love a slew of Jaguars jokes.
Surprisingly, this won’t be the first time the two franchises have met in an AFC title game—they faced off in 1996, just the second season of the Jags’ existence. If Jacksonville had won, the ensuing trip to the Super Bowl would have been considered the greatest moment in the franchise’s history. Instead, New England crushed the Jags 20-6, and went to a Super Bowl that many Patriots fans have likely forgotten, considering that New England has made seven Super Bowl appearances since.
I never would have predicted that Jacksonville would be the franchise battling New England for the AFC crown, but I’m so glad it is. The Jags are young and vicious. Their defense has no fear and gives no quarter. If they fall to the Pats, this will still go down as a spectacular season: the year that Jacksonville announced its intentions to climb out of the league’s cellar. If the Jags win—holy hell. It’d mark one of the greatest upsets in recent NFL memory, and the Jacksonville Freakin’ Jaguars would go to the Super Bowl.
Here are three reasons to love the Jags, for a week and possibly beyond.
The Blake Bortles Situation
I am never fully sure whether I am mocking Blake Bortles or celebrating him. Honestly, I don’t know if anybody ever is.
Super Bowl Losses— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) January 17, 2018
Tom Brady: 2
Blake Bortles: 0 pic.twitter.com/glf1FMJnwF
The Jaguars’ fourth-year quarterback has a tendency to throw footballs like a weight lifter who’s had too much to drink.
Bortles is not the reason the Jags are a game away from the Super Bowl. In two playoff games, he has gone a dismally inefficient 26-for-49 passing for 301 yards. This season he finished 20th in the league in passer rating, 18th in yards per attempt, and 20th in touchdown percentage. He registered a career-high completion percentage and a career-low interception percentage, and still ranked 25th and 20th in those categories, respectively.
We can use “a bortles” as a collective noun referring to a hefty amount of interceptions. (Example: “We could have won our intramural flag football game, but Steve threw a bortles of picks.”) Back in 2015, Bortles led the NFL in both interceptions and fumbles, a rare feat. (Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, and Dave Krieg have also done it.) He hasn’t gotten much better since: In 2015, he threw picks on 3.0 percent of his passes; in 2017, that figure sits at 2.5 percent.
But there is one obvious area Bortles in which has recently improved: He led all quarterbacks in sacks taken in 2014 and 2015, but thanks to a better offensive line and a better understanding of when to give up on plays, he’s now getting sacked at less than half the rate he did during his rookie season. Look at how quickly he’s willing to pack it in:
Oddly, Bortles’s legs have become a key factor in this postseason, as he set a career high for rushing yards (88) in a 10-3 victory over the Bills in the wild-card round.
Bortles seems to have come to terms with the fact he isn’t particularly good at throwing, but somehow, this has given him more confidence, as he now understands how he can help his team despite his limitations. With a stellar running back in Leonard Fournette, Bortles knows his arm is needed less than at any other point in his career, and yet he’s achieving his greatest success. Look at him goofily beam after one of his plays actually works:
I mean, just look at him goofily beam for no apparent reason at all:
I feel the same way watching Blake Bortles that Blake Bortles seems to feel about playing: confused as to why things work in spite of his Bortlesdom, but generally happy about it.
Jacksonville’s Defense Will Dominate You and Laugh
Some great defenses choose to off their opponent by suffocating them. Others choose to rip their prey apart limb from limb. The Jaguars are the second type.
To say that Jacksonville has the best defense in the NFL this season would be an understatement. It actually has the best defense in the NFL over the past several seasons. The Jaguars led the league in opposing passer rating, passing yards allowed, percentage of opposing drives that ended in a score, interception percentage, and Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. They were second in yards per play allowed, points allowed, turnovers, and sacks.
They gave up just 3.7 adjusted net yards per passing attempt, a statistic that takes into account passing yardage, sacks, and interceptions. The gap between the Jaguars and the second-place Vikings is as big as the gap between Minnesota and 12th-place Washington. No other team has allowed under 4 adjusted net yards per attempt since the 2013 Seahawks.
Pro Football Reference tracks a metric called expected points contributed. According to this stat, no defense was worth more than 100 points to its team over the course of the season besides the Jaguars, who were worth 151.4 points, the highest total since the 2009 Jets.
What I love most about the Jags defense is that everything works in concert. On this play from last weekend’s 45-42 divisional-round win over the Steelers, no Pittsburgh receiver gets open downfield because of the excellent coverage by cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, both of whom were named AFC Pro Bowl starters. This means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stands around while a horde of Jaguars pass rushers closes in on him. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue forces a fumble, and linebacker Telvin Smith then grabs the ball and runs 55 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Prior to 2017, 13 NFL teams had managed to record four scoop-and-scores over the course of a season. The Jags set a record with five, not counting the aforementioned play last Sunday against the Steelers.
There are no weak spots on this unit: Three Jacksonville starters, Ramsey, Smith, and defensive end Calais Campbell, are graded as “elite,” according to Pro Football Focus. Two more, Bouye and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, are classified as “high quality.” Five more are labeled as “above average”; just one, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, ranks as average. Dareus is a former All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler, and PFF’s evaluations suggest that he’s the worst starter on this defense.
But the Jaguars have something more important than cohesion, scheme, or even talent: championship-level swagger. Ramsey made headlines this week for his proclamation that “we’re going to the Super Bowl, and we’re going to win that bitch.” But that’s not the half of it. Ramsey is the league’s most effective trash talker, famously baiting A.J. Green into a brawl that got both players ejected in Week 9.
“If I knew I was gonna get kicked out, I would have beat his ass,” Ramsey told The Ringer’s own Robert Mays.
The Jaguars defense is an 11-man unit dedicated to destroying opponents’ egos before, during, and after a game. Jacksonville has the potential to not only shut down Tom Brady, but also to force him to abandon his budding career as a fitness huckster.
Jaguars Fans Love the Jags More Than They Should
As much as I love the character and premise of Jason Mendoza on The Good Place and the welcome he received in Jacksonville’s home playoff game against the Bills, I feel it’s unfortunate that a fictional dead person has become the national stand-in for the Jags fan base. There are lots of real, living Jaguars fans who deserve to be celebrated.
Jags fans have heard it all. They spent most of the 2000s hearing how bad they were at fandom. The Jaguars were the NFL team most notoriously stricken by the league’s awful and thankfully now-defunct blackout policy, which punished fan bases that failed to purchase enough tickets for home games by removing their games from local television. Half of the team’s home games from 2001 to 2004 were blacked out, as were seven during the 2009 season. For most of the franchise’s existence, there have been rumors the team could ditch Jacksonville for larger cities. It used to be Los Angeles, and even now there’s talk of the Jaguars moving to London or Oakland. Somehow, these things were depicted as knocks against Jags fans, as if they were at fault for not supporting ownership that cared more about money than winning.
Jaguars fans had plenty of reasons to not care about this team. It finished third or fourth in the dismal AFC South in eight of the past nine seasons, with no playoff appearances. It had the worst record in the NFL in 2012, the second-worst mark in 2013, and went 3-13, 5-11, and 3-13 in 2014, 2015, and 2016, respectively. Some Jags fans surely longed for the David Garrard era; think about how sad a phrase “longed for the David Garrard era” is.
And yet, in this petri dish of suck, I feel like Jags fans have flourished. The awful seasons and constant stream of insults from every other fan base in the league actually reinvigorated the Duval faithful, who’d grown sick and tired of mockery. I’d say the Jags’ rowdiness-to-average-team-quality ratio is annually the highest in the league, if not second-highest behind the Bills.
Jags fans are a strange bunch. They’ll belly flop into inflatable tubs of mayo:
MAYONNAISE BELLY FLOP CONTEST AT THE JAGS TAILGATE pic.twitter.com/ACb57Nrbuq— hatin’ ass med (@god_hates_jags) September 17, 2017
(This stunt began as an inside joke about how Titans fans loved mayo, but spawned dozens of blog posts about how Jags fans will dive into mayo. A backfire, but a beautiful one.)
They’ll give interviews like this:
I feel like the truest example of a Jaguars fan is the team’s mascot, Jaxson de Ville, famed for accidentally lighting himself on fire once, and getting stuck on a zipline another time. During the team’s 4-12 campaign in 2013, he routinely challenged other mascots to bets with painful results, and of course, lost, because the Jaguars were terrible. Here he is getting blasted with 34 paintballs while “naked” (wearing painted spandex) because the Jaguars lost to the Colts 37-3:
I don’t know why Jaxson kept increasing the stakes even as the Jags got progressively worse, and I don’t know why Jags fans grew increasingly devoted even when their team gave them little reason to do so. But hearing the DUUUVAAAAAAAAAAL chants in Pittsburgh last week was heartening. Let’s hope a trip to the Super Bowl can be the payoff for the many, many, many bad times.
Besides, if you say something bad about the Jags or their fans online, you will get absolutely roasted on Twitter. Trust me.