We’ve had a few fun story arcs come and go in the AFC this year—like the Chiefs’ fast start and the Bills’ surprising competence out the gates—but all along, the season has seemed to be setting itself up for what feels inevitable: a rematch between the Steelers and Patriots in the conference championship game.
But there’s at least one team that could upset that order. After watching the Jaguars dispatch the Seahawks on Sunday—a hard fought 30-24 win over a battled-tested Seattle team that’s led by an MVP candidate in Russell Wilson, always plays its best ball late in the year, and was coming off a huge victory over the top-seeded Eagles—it’s clear that when Jacksonville plays with balance in all three phases. And this team looks capable of derailing that Pittsburgh–New England Final Destination narrative and throwing a wrench into AFC playoff picture.
No one would blame you if, coming into this week, you still harbored a healthy dose of skepticism about the Jaguars’ place in the AFC hierarchy. Yes, the team is finally seeing a return on the millions of dollars and numerous premium draft picks it sunk into the defense, where Jacksonville has developed one of the most dominant and opportunistic units in the NFL, but it’s still a franchise that’s captained by quarterback Blake Bortles. For much of the year, Jacksonville did all it could take its signal-caller out of the game plan altogether. In the team’s big Week 5 win over the Steelers, for instance, Bortles threw the ball just 14 times, completing eight passes for 95 yards with a pick. Instead, the Jaguars’ defense and running game carried the load. Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory combined to rush for 222 yards and two scores in that victory, and the defense picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times. But while that formula worked in that game, it’s not one that is easy to recreate with consistency, and the Jags have been erratic all year—throwing in head-scratching losses to the Jets and Cardinals to go with their impressive wins over the Steelers, Ravens, and Chargers.
For the first time since their Week 3 win over Baltimore, the Jaguars put together a complete game in all three phases against a quality opponent and displayed the blueprint that could make them real contenders against the conference’s playoff-tested elite. Against Seattle, the defense was its typical swarming self, picking Wilson off three times, adding four pass breakups, a pair of sacks, and six quarterback hits. They got impact plays on special teams, including a 51-yard field goal by kicker Josh Lambo and a 72-yard punt return by rookie Jaydon Mickens that set up a 1-yard Fournette touchdown. And they got a handful of huge plays out of their offense, including several clutch, precision throws from Bortles. Early in the third quarter, Bortles used his eyes to hold Seahawks safety Earl Thomas in the middle of the field long enough to look to his right and float a perfectly placed touch-pass to Dede Westbrook at the pylon, giving the Jaguars a 10-0 lead.
Later in the quarter, he stepped up into the pocket to deliver a dime downfield to Keelan Cole, who reeled it in for a 75-yard score.
But it was probably Bortles’s early fourth-quarter pass down the sideline to Westbrook on a key third-and-3 that was his most impressive throw all day. He calmly lofted a pass 29-yards downfield over the outstretched arms of cornerback Byron Maxwell to move the chains for the Jags and set up an eventual Lambo field goal, which pushed Jacksonville’s lead to 30-17.
This is just the first time all year that Bortles has put together back-to-back games with two-plus touchdown throws, and he couldn’t have done it without stellar protection up front. After getting near-constant pressure and three sacks on Carson Wentz last week, Seattle failed to generate much of a pass rush against Bortles, registering zero sacks in the game while allowing the Jacksonville signal-caller to go through his progressions and make throws. Bortles played with confidence and poise, and Jacksonville’s staff did an excellent job of putting him in position to make throws in rhythm, mixing dump-offs and screens with deep shots downfield. It helped too that the Jags had plenty of offensive balance, gaining 156 yards and a touchdown on the ground. No run was bigger or more indicative of this team’s ability to salt away games with their star running back than when Fournette got outside and scampered 13 yards to pick up a game-sealing first down on a key third-and-11 play with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter. As the Jaguars’ offense assumed their victory formation, things got chippy, with several fights breaking out and a handful of Seahawks getting ejected. Bortles offered his explanation for why that ugly scene went down after the game, and if you’re a Jags fan, you gotta love this swagger:
Blake Bortles on recent games being chippy.— Brian Chojnacki (@BroadcastingBri) December 11, 2017
“Teams aren’t used to getting beat by the Jags. We beat the crap out of them for 60 minutes.” #Jaguars
In the win, Jacksonville beat Seattle at its own brand of football, which shouldn’t be surprising considering former head coach Gus Bradley (a former Seahawks defensive coordinator) had a big part in building the roster, and defensive coordinator Todd Wash—another former Seahawk assistant and long-time Bradley doppelgänger-underling—is running the schemes the team deploys on defense today. The Jaguars improved to 9-4 and moved into first place in the AFC South, where they currently hold the inside track for the 3-seed in the conference and greater than 99 percent odds for a postseason berth. Jacksonville certainly made a statement in beating the Seahawks, but we may have to wait until January to know for sure whether this team is cut out to make real postseason noise. The Jaguars get a pretty soft schedule down the stretch, hosting the Texans next week before heading out west to take on the 49ers in Week 16 and finishing up on the road in what could end up being a decisive division matchup with the Titans in the final game of the regular season.
It will be telling which version of the team shows up over the final three weeks of the season. There’s the version that’s almost wholly reliant on getting an early lead so it can dominate on defense and ride its run game to drain clock and score points. That game plan can work, but when you’re going up against Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger and the talent-packed offenses of the Patriots and Steelers, the margin for error is razor thin. Then there’s the version of the Jaguars we saw out there this week. It wasn’t a perfect performance—the defense gave up a couple of big plays late that let Seattle back in the game—but overall, Jacksonville proved to be too much for a Seattle team that came in on a roll. Playing with incredible energy and confidence, the Jaguars created takeaways on defense, got big plays on special teams, and scored points with an explosive passing game and relentless ground attack. That version is, without a doubt, a bona fide Super Bowl contender.