Gene Frenette: First-place Jaguars winning the mediocre AFC South isn't complete fantasy

·7 min read
Just as linebacker Foye Oluokun (23) is closing in on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in Sunday's 24-0 victory, the Jaguars appear to be closer to being an AFC South contender this year for the first time since 2017.
Just as linebacker Foye Oluokun (23) is closing in on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in Sunday's 24-0 victory, the Jaguars appear to be closer to being an AFC South contender this year for the first time since 2017.

At the risk of this column becoming a future candidate for Freezing Cold Takes, and me accused of being prematurely bullish on the Jaguars by connecting them to the P-word, can anyone totally dismiss the possibility this franchise could repeat its 2017 worst-to-first AFC South leap?

No, this division appears as wide open as a Nebraska football hire, providing AD Trev Alberts doesn’t have the same man-crush on a certain former Jaguars head coach as Shad Khan.

Just because the 1-1 Jaguars happen to be in first place by themselves for the first time since Week 2 of 2018 — and we all know how that season flamed out after a 3-1 start — please don’t infer I’m putting an AFC South crown on Doug Pederson’s team in mid-September.

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Don’t forget, this is the same franchise that looked quite respectable after its first two games in 2020 (beating the Indianapolis Colts, narrowly losing 33-30 on the road to the Tennessee Titans), then proceeded to lose every game the rest of the season.

All that said, does the AFC South not already look ripe for even the Jaguars’ taking?

Is it far-fetched to say the team everyone picked to finish third behind Indianapolis and Tennessee in 2022 might, at this moment anyway, be as much the favorite as that winless pair?

The idea of the Jaguars being division champions, or still in postseason contention at Christmas, would have been a preposterous narrative two weeks ago.

Not so much now.

DraftKings Sportbook still has the Colts as the favorite at +140 and the Titans at +180, with the Jaguars inching closer at +300. But after the Jaguars’ 24-0 dismantling of Indianapolis Sunday at TIAA Bank Field, then seeing how Tennessee got obliterated by the Buffalo Bills 41-7 Monday night, it sure looks like Doug Pederson’s team is the only one in the AFC South whose arrow is pointing up.

Still a long way to go, and the Jaguars do have their toughest back-to-back games of the season (at Los Angeles Chargers, at Philadelphia Eagles) coming up. Nobody would be surprised to see them 1-3 in 11 days, which is by no means a division killer.

But let them get a split and come out 2-2 — with no worse than a tie for first place heading into games against Houston (October 8) at home, a Colts rematch (October 15) and home to the New York Giants (October 22) — then it’s not hard to see the Jaguars staying in the thick of the division race.

Will 8 or 9 wins be enough?

Nearly three weeks ago, I projected a Jaguars’ best-case scenario for getting to a 9-8 winning season, which most would consider a stretch given the schedule matches all AFC South teams with the brutal AFC West.

But when you examine the division from a small two-game sample size, it’s not inconceivable that eight or nine wins might be enough to get somebody to first place.

In 20 years of four-team NFL divisional play, only five times out of 80 AFC divisional races has a team finished on top with single-digit victories. (It’s happened 10 times in the NFC).

Unless Indianapolis, Tennessee or Houston takes a significant jump from their performances in the first two weeks, the Jaguars appear to have as much a chance as anyone else in the division to raise an AFC South banner.

A dominant shutout victory in their first division game, not to mention everybody else looking so pedestrian, is why Pederson ought to feel optimistic about the Jaguars staying in the hunt all year.

“It’s something we talked about this week,” Pederson said after blanking the Colts. “The AFC South, it’s a great division. It’s only going to get better and stronger. This is a great [Colts] football team today. It’s going to be a different game next time we play them.

“In order for any team to get to the postseason, you’ve got to be able to win your division, so this was a great step in that direction.”

Give Pederson high marks for loyalty, but nobody can say with a straight face the AFC South — it had the worst combined record of any AFC division the past two years — is a “great” division.

It’s the equivalent of suggesting Cole Beasley might resuscitate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ho-hum passing game and become Super Bowl MVP.

One prominent NFL website is already calling the division a “dumpster fire,” which is not sticking the needle in too far given the facts in evidence.

Let’s start with the Colts’ Matt Ryan, who needed a ferocious fourth quarter rally just to tie the lowly–regarded Texans. Then he looked all of his 37 years against the Jaguars, tossing three interceptions and putting up the third-worst quarterback rating (34.0) of his 15-year career.

Tennessee, which still might be the Jaguars’ biggest obstacle because the Titans always seem to win the trenches battle, has plummeted in everybody’s meaningless NFL power rankings.

They haven’t been able to get Yulee High bulldozer Derrick Henry rolling (34 carries, 107 yards, 0 TDs) and with receiver A.J. Brown now doing his damage in Philadelphia, quarterback Ryan Tannehill is looking rather ordinary.

Jaguars appear on upswing

For now, what makes the Jaguars at least a tentative AFC South contender is how Pederson and his players worked on their issues from a Week 1 road loss to the Washington Commanders, then made sure the same mistakes didn’t surface.

The defense stopped giving up big plays, avoiding the fourth-quarter collapse that allowed Washington to overcome a 22-14 deficit. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was far more efficient, delivering passes to the right spots and stayed patient as his offensive line gave him a clean pocket. The Jaguars went from 13 penalties one week to just three the next.

It’s always possible in the wildly unpredictable NFL that the demolition of the Colts is an aberration, just like it was during last year’s 3-14 season. But everything points to this being a far different Jaguars team. That's because Lawrence, who might be the best AFC South quarterback by season's end, now has a former NFL quarterback running the show and the roster upgrade on both sides of the ball should be enough to at least double their win total from 2021.

Besides, how fun is it for a change just to legitimately consider the possibility that the Jaguars might be reasonably good? Not necessarily first-place good, but good enough to send a message that the days of being a pushover are done.

Take Sunday’s trip to face the Chargers, their 19th game on the West coast in franchise history. It’s a daunting task with only two Jaguars’ wins in the Pacific time zone in the 21st century, and too many of those losses wby lopsided margins.

Win or lose Sunday, if the Jaguars and Lawrence show they can battle the Chargers and health-impaired quarterback Justin Herbert well into the fourth quarter, it’s another sign this franchise probably isn’t going to exit the AFC South race before Thanksgiving like most years.

Remember, nobody saw the Jaguars going from 3-13 in 2016 to 10-6 the following year. Out of nowhere, the Jaguars came alive, surprisingly won the division with a second-time NFL head coach named Doug (Marrone) in his first season as the boss in Jacksonville.

Can that happen again? Could the Jaguars really win the AFC South?

In this far-from-great division, you can’t rule it out.

Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540 

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: With solo lead in mediocre AFC South, perception of Jaguars may be changing