The juice in the AFC race is being provided by the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. They’re the most accomplished teams in the conference. They have the two best records. And they have a marquee head-to-head game this week in the late Sunday afternoon TV window that will likely decide the #1 seed in the playoffs. But gaining steam below the surface is the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s time to ask the unthinkable—could these Jags end up being the AFC team that shows up in Minneapolis on the first Sunday of February?
It starts with a revamped defense in Jacksonville. They’re the best unit in the league, with most key players having come in through free agency or the draft over the past two years. The most notable new acquisition is Calais Campbell. The defensive lineman came over from Arizona this season, has recorded 12 ½ sacks and is a prime candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
One reason for Campbell’s success is that if you put too much attention on him, it leaves Yannick Ngakoue free. The 22-year-old has eleven sacks. And if you manage to block both Campbell and Ngakoue? There’s still Malik Jackson, and his seven sacks to account for. Jacksonville can get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing and that’s a terrific formula for success.
Jackson was a key part of Denver’s run to the Super Bowl title in 2015, the most notable recent instance of a defense carrying a team to the Lombardi Trophy. This Jacksonville team has corners in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, who are playing at a level reminiscent of the famed “No Fly Zone” that the Broncos used to win two years ago—a title run that, it should be noted, saw them beat both Pittsburgh and New England head-to-head in the AFC playoffs.
Furthermore, the Jaguars have something those 2015 Broncos didn’t and it’s one of the best running backs in the game. Leonard Fournette, the rookie out of LSU, has been everything he was hyped to be when he came out of high school to glowing reviews from recruiting gurus. Fournette has ran for 923 yards this year, seventh-best in the league and even with a heavy workload and a bad offensive line, he still averages four yards a pop.
Jacksonville is far from alone in having problems on the offensive front. Very few teams in the NFL have a truly legitimate front five. The complete absence of offensive line consistency is one of the more underreported stories by football media.
THE COACH & THE QUARTERBACK
But one story that never goes unnoticed by football media is the head coach and the quarterback and that’s where the rub comes in when it comes to these Jaguars. The analogy to the 2015 Broncos also hits a roadblock here. The ‘15 Broncos might have been dealing with Peyton Manning on his last legs, but even the shell of Peyton, with all his ability to audible at the line of scrimmage and manage a game, was still preferable to most other options. Is anyone really going to take the coach/QB combo of Doug Marrone and Blake Bortles to knock off Belichick/Brady or Tomlin/Roethlisberger?
Those that actually bet money on their opinions say no way. Jacksonville is priced at 8-1 to win the AFC crown, a figure that puts them in the same neighborhood as San Diego and Kansas City. By contrast, the Patriots are even money and the Steelers are 5-2. We can safely say that Vegas isn’t worried about the defense or the running game. This is about doubts over Marrone and Bortles.
For those who think it’s unnecessary to look past the coach/QB dynamic when analyzing the NFL playoffs, there’s no reason to go any further. But there are those of us who think football is a little more complex than such simplistic reasoning allows for. If Eli Manning can win two Super Bowls and Joe Flacco can win one, is suggesting that Blake Bortles could simply get to one so unthinkable—after all, even Rex Grossman made a Super Bowl when he had the best defense in the league backing him up (2006 Chicago Bears).
Furthermore, Marrone deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’ll admit I’ve always wondered what all the fuss was about him. I didn’t get why a pedestrian four-year tenure at Syracuse got him the Buffalo job. I didn’t get why a 15-17 record over two years with the Bills got him another shot so quickly with Jacksonville. But on the flip side—one of those seasons in Buffalo was a 9-7 year and the good people of western New York haven’t seen many of those in this century.
With nine wins already under his belt this year, Marrone will have two winning seasons in three years as an NFL head coach, both in places not exactly renowned for winning. No, I wouldn’t put him in a discussion with Belichick or Tomlin, but I would put him in a discussion with Gary Kubiak—the man who coached those aforementioned 2015 Denver Broncos past Belichick and Tomlin in the playoffs.
That brings us to Bortles. He’s in his fourth year after being the third overall pick in the draft in 2014. This is another guy I never got what all the fuss was about. I thought he was overrated when he was drafted. I thought the media hype over his 35 touchdown passes in 2015 was insane and a product of Fantasy League-driven media coverage, given his 18 interceptions and sub-60% completion percentage.
Nor has my opinion changed drastically. Bortles has toned down the interceptions a bit—he’s thrown eight this year, or 2% of his total passes, which ranks 15th in the league. That’s at least manageable. But he’s in the lower half of the league in yards-per-attempt (6.9) and completion percentage (60%). I’m willing to say Scott Tolzien could do the same thing if he was supported by the best defense in the league and Fournette in the backfield.
But I’m also not one who thinks mediocre quarterback play is an automatic death sentence in the playoffs. Would I pick Bortles-led Jacksonville to knock off teams led by Big Ben or the legendary Thomas Patrick Edward Brady? On a personal note, given that I live near Boston and spent nine satisfying years living in Pittsburgh, would I incite those that know me to riot at my door by saying Jacksonville is going to oust both of their teams?
All things being equal, no I wouldn’t. But in the world of Las Vegas, all things are not equal. Do I think Jacksonville could get through the AFC playoffs at a rate better than one time in eight, thus making them a value bet? Yes, I do—so long as they hold off Tennessee and win the AFC South.