The Jaguars are in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, but how far will they be able to advance?
The Jacksonville Jaguars are back in the postseason for the first time since 2008. Led by a top-tier defense, Jacksonville looks poised to make a deep run in the AFC as the three-seed.
“Sacksonville’s” road to Minneapolis begins with a matchup against the Buffalo Bills, who are riding high after clinching the final wild-card spot during a hectic Week 17. Here is a breakdown of some key players and wins Jacksonville is bringing to these playoffs, as well as a preview of what to expect from them this postseason.
Offense: Leonard Fournette
The fourth overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, the LSU product came into Jacksonville with lofty expectations. Fournette not only met those expectations, but also spearheaded the league’s top-ranked rushing offense, accounting for 46% of the Jaguars’ team rushing yards and half of their rushing touchdowns. Fournette finished in the top-10 this season in rushing yards, despite seeing eight or more defenders in the box on over 48% of his carries.
Fournette is a hard runner who is seemingly eager to make first contact with defenders (he finished 11th in the NFL in broken tackles on runs this season), and his ability to demand the majority of the defensive attention every time he lines up has helped Blake Bortles deliver Jacksonville a breakout year from under center.
Defense: Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell
Ramsey and Campbell both make strong cases for defensive MVP on one of, if not the strongest, Jacksonville defenses in franchise history. Ramsey finished with four interceptions on one of the most opportunistic defenses in the NFL, and routinely shut down top wide receivers week in and week out, finishing 11th in the league in pass deflections (17). With LeSean McCoy on the mend from a seemingly severe ankle injury, the Bills could lean towards letting Tyrod Taylor air the ball out, and Ramsey will be in charge of making sure Buffalo will not find any success through the air on Saturday. Ramsey also finished with an overall 92.2 rating according to Pro Football Focus, good for the second highest cornerback ranking in the league.
Campbell led the charge on an absolutely monstrous season from the Jaguars’ defensive line. He finished second in the league in sacks (14), which accounted for over a quarter of the Jaguars’ sacks on the season. Campbell also finished with the sixth-most tackles from a defensive lineman this season (67), and has been a key veteran presence in the Jacksonville locker room throughout the season. As one of the only players with playoff experience on this roster, Campbell will be instrumental towards getting his defense mentally prepared for their playoff run.
Best Win and Worst Loss:
Best Win: 30-9 over Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 5)
Week 5 was the toughest test the Jaguars faced all season. Heading into Pittsburgh coming off of an overtime loss to the Jets, Jacksonville had shown flashes of the game-breaking potential in its defense, but their offense still lacked any sort of identity.
Enter Fournette, who logged season-highs in carries (28) and yards (181), including a game-sealing 90-yard touchdown rush in the fourth quarter. Fournette’s career day eased the load on Bortles, who only attempted 14 passes, and gave Jacksonville an offensive identity that did not involve relying on Bortles to make too many plays. Their defense found an offense of its own that day too, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times, including two from Tashaun Gipson and two pick-sixes. Jacksonville took this momentum and rode it to the tune of eight wins out of their 10-game stretch in the middle of the season.
Worst Loss: 27-24 loss to Arizona Cardinals (Week 12)
It’s tough to imagine a time when you can overlook a team when there are only 16 games in a season, but that’s exactly how the game between the 7-3 Jaguars and the 4-6 Cardinals felt. Jacksonville came into the game riding a four-game winning streak and faced a Cardinals team that had dropped two straight, and three of their last four. Whether it was a trip out to the west coast, or simply overlooking their opponent, Jacksonville’s loss to Arizona is inexcusable from a playoff contender.
Safety Barry Church was continuously exposed on third downs, and also gave up a 52-yard touchdown in his zone playing center field that gave up a Jaguars lead in the fourth quarter. Bortles went just 19-for-33 (57% completion percentage) for just 160 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. Fournette also had a nightmarish day, posting a measly 25 yards on 12 carries (2.08 yards/carry). Jacksonville benefitted from their stud defense the whole game, who scored off a Calais Campbell fumble return touchdown, and also gave their offense a chance to seal the game with an interception by Church. Like clockwork though, Bortles got intercepted himself on the next drive, which set up a Blaine Gabbert game-winning field goal drive to send Jacksonville to 7-4.
Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams
Week 2: 37-16 loss vs (5) Tennessee Titans
Week 5: 30-9 win at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 6: 27-17 loss vs (3) Los Angeles Rams
Week 17: 15-10 loss at (5) Tennessee Titans
Positives: Jacksonville’s defense is legit. At home or on the road you can guarantee that the Jaguars is going to make your offense uncomfortable. The Week 17 loss against the Titans can be easily overlooked, as most of the players looked sluggish and disinterested in a meaningless game for themselves. The key to Jacksonville’s success is easily Fournette, as Jacksonville is 3-1 in games where Fournette goes over 100 yards rushing.
Negatives: Their defense must be up to the challenge against a hungry Buffalo team on Saturday. Jacksonville’s defensive yards allowed per game this season is 286. When they give up more than their season average, they turn into a below average team (1-2 in the games above when they allow more than 286 yards to opposing offenses). It is alarming since a poor defensive outing could lead to a shootout, which means Jacksonville would have to rely on Bortles to make plays that he cannot make, especially with the depleted arsenal he has on the outside as far as his receivers go. Buffalo will look to negate Fournette’s impression on this game, and if they successfully do so, Bortles has not shown that he can carry this team.
Performance Leading Into the Postseason:
Jacksonville dropped their final two contests of the season despite Head Coach Doug Marrone starting the regulars in Week 17 against the Titans. A surprising bright spot for Marrone’s offense is Bortles, who has eclipsed 300 yards passing in three of his past five games. The defense is a different story, however, allowing 295.6 yards/game in that same five-game stretch. Considering only one of those final five games were against teams currently in the playoffs, Jacksonville needs to elevate their defensive performance back to their midseason form before they find themselves out of the Super Bowl hunt in the first weekend.
Level of Contender: Medium
Jacksonville’s defense is the only reason I am pegging them at a “medium” level of contender. In the past, teams have been able to ride a hot defense to deep playoff runs (see: ‘16 Denver Broncos, ‘14 Seattle Seahawks), and I can see this Jacksonville team hopping on the back of their defense to go deep in the playoffs. Already winning (handily) in Pittsburgh will go a long way towards this team’s confidence should they beat Buffalo in their opening game, as the Steelers host the Jaguars if they leave Jacksonville victorious.
However, getting by an inspired Bills team, followed by potential back-to-back matchups against Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, could prove to be too much for this defense to handle. This is Marrone’s first rodeo in the playoffs, and recent history has shown you need either a veteran quarterback or a veteran head coach to beat Roethlisberger or Brady in the playoffs. If Jacksonville’s defense can keep their offense in a competitive, low-scoring game, and if Bortles can play a clean, turnover-free game of football, you might just see Jacksonville playing for the right to represent the AFC in Minneapolis come February.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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