It’s been a while since anybody at the stadium said, “See you next week” after a game in January. But thanks to some stout defense, the Jaguars beat the Titans, 20-16 to win the AFC South Division Championship in their final regular season game.
In front of a capacity crowd, perhaps the largest to see a Jaguars home game, the Jaguars grabbed their first lead of the game with just over two minutes to play as Rayshawn Jenkins jarred the ball loose from Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs and Josh Allen scooped up the tumbling ball and streaked thirty-seven yards for the score.
The crowd erupted, and again, the Jaguars defense rose to the occasion, harassing Dobbs and stifling Derrick Henry, forcing a turnover on downs in the Titans final possession to end the game.
It was sweet for the Jaguars fans at the stadium, who stuck around inside afterwards and shouted a chorus of “Duuvalll” numerous times in unison to celebrate the end of a long skid of ineptitude by the local franchise. And they’re hoping there’s not only more to come this year, but this kind of game sets the tone for a young Jaguars team going forward. No matter what happens in the playoffs, as the fourth-youngest team in the NFL, the arrow is pointing up for the Jaguars.
“This game symbolized our season,” Head Coach Doug Pederson said afterwards. “The ups, downs, high, lows, and we came out with a victory. We stayed the same and guys improved every game.”
Hiring Pederson is the whole key to the Jaguars success this year. After a chaotic and lost year under the buffoon Urban Meyer, the Jaguars young players, especially Trevor Lawrence, have flourished. General Manager Trent Baalke deserves some credit along with Pederson for adding the right blend of veteran players to help change the culture and getting the Jaguars pointed in the right direction.
“I just think Doug is an incredible leader,” Wide Receiver Christian Kirk, one of the veteran additions explained. “He connects with everybody within the locker room. He treats us fair, and he sticks to his word. He is always thinking about us, and he puts us first. Like I said, he is just an easy guy to buy into, and I know everybody in this locker room is very grateful to be able to play for him.”
Kirk and another veteran wide receiver addition, Zay Jones, both have more than eighty receptions this year, the first pair to do that for the Jaguars since Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell in 2001. That’s a long dry stretch.
It makes you scratch your head asking why Philadelphia fired Pederson after just five years, including three winning seasons and a Super Bowl Championship. The Athletic has a pretty good article on that, detailing some of the disfunction in the Eagles organization at the time with Owner Jeffrey Lurie and General Manager Howie Roseman. Jaguars Owner Shad Khan tried to hire Pederson last year, but Doug said he needed a year off to get his life back on track. But when the Meyer experiment exploded, Pederson said he was ready.
After last season, the Jaguars weren’t only a losing franchise, they were broken. And Pederson recognized that right away.
“What was needed was trust,” Pederson said of his first order of business as Head Coach. “Trust was broken with this team when I took this job. I think they saw in me right away that they can trust in me and I can trust in them. It began to show during the course of the year. When you have five straight losses it can go sideways in a hurry. But we stuck together.”
“You’re trying to teach a winning culture and flip the script, so to speak,” he added. “But you never know how that’s going to work until you start playing games. To win nine games in our first year together, it’s just fantastic.”
On the field after the game, Pederson and Quarterback Trevor Lawrence had a long embrace, capping an improbable turnaround for Lawrence and the franchise.
“You know, just told him I loved him,” Trevor revealed. “I’m appreciative of him, just what he has done for this place obviously, it takes more than just a coach, but what he has been able to do for this organization has been incredible and just excited for the future.”
And part of the future is next week. A home playoff game, a young team and a bit of a 1996 (’97 playoffs) vibe.
“I just think this whole journey from where we were to where we are now, to earn this opportunity to go play in the playoffs, it’s special,” Lawrence added. “You ask a lot of guys that have played for five, six, seven, eight plus years and a lot of guys have only been to the playoffs once, twice, three times in their career. When you think about that too, it really puts it into perspective that it’s not easy to win in this league.”
Long suffering Jaguars fans are well aware of that. It’s why the parking lot didn’t empty until the wee hours of the morning after a Saturday night victory. With calls of “Duuuvalll” ringing in their ears, the party continues this week. They deserve it.