One of my favorite stories about the vagaries of the NFL comes from the 2010 season. In their 13th game, the Jaguars secured their eighth victory of the year, beating Oakland at home to go 8-5 with three games left. In the same week, the Green Bay Packers were also 8-5, losing to Detroit on the road. The Jaguars needed just one win in their final three games to qualify for the playoffs. Instead they lost three straight, finished 8-8 and missed the postseason. The Packers, on the other hand, won two of their final three, finished the regular season 10-6, clinched the Wild Card and continued winning through the playoffs, on the road and eventually becoming Super Bowl champions.
Just three weeks earlier there were high hopes in Jacksonville and lots of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth in Wisconsin.
In 1996, the Jaguars were in their second year of existence with no expectations to be among the league’s elite. Their inaugural year, they mustered a 4-12 record and about the same was expected the following season. They were 3-6 through their first nine games but won six of their last seven. They caught a break in their final game with Morten Anderson’s missed field goal to eek into the playoffs then famously got hot, upsetting Buffalo and Denver by identical 30-27 scores, only to fall in the AFC Championship game to the Patriots on a cold night in New England.
So does game one this week against the Giants mean anything for this year’s Jaguars? Somewhat, but it’s not any great indicator of what they might be for the next seventeen weeks. First of all, early in the season, like any team, they need to avoid any kind of weird injury. Although the Jaguars have had tough camps, hitting at game speed takes some getting used to so getting through the first couple of weeks healthy is always key.
What gives a team a chance late in the year when they seem to have been just noodling around for most of the season? Health is a major factor. Getting the right players on the field at the right time is a common thread among all contending teams in the NFL. Last year, the Jaguars had only two missed games (Telvin Smith’s concussion) on defense.
They also have to be built for the long haul, which means a solid running game and a stout defense. The 2010 Packers had that, as well as an emerging Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. The ’96 Jaguars rode the legs of Natrone Means on offense and the stellar play of Clyde Simmons on defense all the way to the AFC title game.
Are the 2018 Jaguars built like that? Absolutely. But better.
If you look at the components of how the Jaguars were put together, start on the offensive line where size does matter. Four of the five starters up front are 6’6” and 320 or bigger. And they have serious attitude. Three running backs are solid between the tackles, have the speed to get outside and can all catch the ball out of the backfield. Quarterback Blake Bortles showed last year he can win any kind of game you want to play. If it’s 10-3 against Buffalo, his legs can do the work, or if it’s 45-42 against Pittsburgh, he can light it up through the air. On defense, the Jaguars have a rotation up front that should carry them through four quarters and pressure quarterbacks pretty effectively. Their linebackers are fast and willing to stand in the hole to stop the run. The back four are talented, cocky and have a level of experience that can be a game changer.
In week one of every season hope springs eternal in all 32 NFL cities. Every fan base, every team thinks with a couple of lucky bounces and if they stay healthy they can go far. The difference this year for the Jaguars is they know they can win. Last year was no fluke. They have the talent and the right mind-set to win games. Unlike Jaguars teams of the last decade, this one knows that their best is good enough. If they go out there and just be who they are, they’ll win games. It won’t take a superhuman effort or as Tom Coughlin often says, “playing above the x’s and o’s.”
They’re good, they’re talented and they’re deeper and faster than any Jaguars team since 1999. Now it’s just a question of going out and doing it. What could hold them back? Hall of Fame finalist Gil Brandt said the Jaguars and the Eagles are the two best rosters in the league so it won’t be talent. Only some self-inflicted problems can stop this Jaguars team. Locker-room division, back luck or an air of entitlement are the only things that can create issues for the 2018 Jaguars. I don’t think guys like Calais Campbell, Barry Church and newly minted captain Leonard Fournette will let that happen. Which is why no matter what happens in New Jersey in week one, they’re still my pick to go to the Super Bowl.