Even in their best seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have sometimes invited more jokes than praise. For a franchise still trying to establish itself in the gridiron world, sustained winning provides the only path to legitimacy.
After a decade wandering in the wilderness, the Jaguars appear on their way out of the NFL cellar.
The Jaguars have won three games in a row, the latest coming in impressive fashion. Down by a field goal with less than two minutes remaining, their defense bottled up Chargers running back Melvin Gordon on three consecutive plays to force a punt. Six plays later, Jacksonville moved just close enough for kicker Josh Lambo to tie the game in the waning moments of regulation. In overtime, cornerback A.J. Bouye picked off Philip Rivers and returned the interception to the two-yard line. Moments later, Lambo kicked the game-winner despite a partial deflection.
In addition to extending the Jaguars' winning streak, the victory upped the team's season win total to six, the most since Jack Del Rio roamed the sidelines in Jacksonville. Now tied atop the AFC South standings and in the mix for the playoffs, the Jags have started to turn heads.
That success has developed in a rather unusual way. Most surprise contenders, such as the Eagles this year or the Raiders in 2016, break out as the result of a quarterback taking the leap to superstardom. However, the Jaguars have not only won despite Blake Bortles, they have relied on him less than in any previous season. After attempting more than 600 passes in each of the past two seasons, Bortles has attempted as few as 14 in games this year by design. At his current pace, the former No. 3 overall pick will barely top 500 throws in 2017.
With Bortles subjugated to placeholder status, the Jaguars have handed the keys to the offense over to a rushing attack led by Leonard Fournette. The rookie running back has physically dominated opponents all season, piling up 629 yards on the ground and another 149 as a receiver. Beyond the numbers, Fournette's presence has allowed the team to shift to a ball-control approach on offense that has limited turnovers and kept opponents from getting into their usual rhythm.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville has constructed a dominant defense. The front seven, which includes Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and the recently acquired Marcell Dareus, has yet to hit its ceiling as a unit but already ranks No. 1 in sacks (35). In the secondary, the cornerback tandem of Bouye and Jalen Ramsey has helped slow down passing attacks and contributed greatly to the team's 18 total takeaways. For opposing offensive coordinators, "Sacksonville" has become the bane of their existence.
Without a franchise quarterback, the Jaguars don't fit anyone's definition of a traditional conference frontrunner. But in a weakened AFC featuring few obvious alternatives, Jacksonville's atypical construction looks far less restrictive than it might in other seasons.
The Patriots own a 7-2 record and have rebounded from a slow early start, but their defense remains one of the worst in the league (31st in Football Outsiders' DVOA entering Week 10) and has struggled against nearly every competent offense it has faced thus far. Under Belichick, New England has reached the AFC title game once with a defense ranked outside the top 20 (2011). The Patriots still have time to improve defensively, but they can only gain so much without changing their personnel.
The AFC's other 7-2 team, the Steelers, also possess some of the traits of a traditional Super Bowl contender, including multiple All-Pro weapons on offense and a defense ranked in the top 10 against the pass and rush, according to DVOA. At the same time, they have surpassed 20 points just once in the past five games, including a 30-9 home loss to the Jaguars. Unless Ben Roethlisberger breaks out of his season-long malaise, another late-season swoon appears to await the Steelers.
The Chiefs hang in the periphery of the conference's elite thanks to a 5-0 start. They have built an offense around running back Kareem Hunt, the likely offensive rookie of the year, and second-year athletic marvel Tyreek Hill. However, Kansas City has cooled over the last month, dropping three of its past four games. The Chiefs' offense remains explosive, but their defense needs to significantly improve to make them a title favorite again.
On paper, those three AFC teams have more working in their favor than the Jaguars, but not by a substantial margin. The Jaguars' brand of football runs so counter to the NFL norm that other teams struggle to adequately prepare for them. Their defense generates pressure and creates turnovers at remarkable rates. With the Fournette-led offense keeping that defense fresh, the Jags look well positioned to be a contender despite the quarterback concerns.
And the remaining schedule offers few challenges to their momentum. The next three weeks see them face teams at the bottom of the NFL, including the winless Browns, plus the Cardinals and Colts. Jacksonville then hosts the Seahawks, who finished their most recent game without a single member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary, and a Texans squad playing without star rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and top defenders J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. The season closes with contests against the 49ers and Titans. The Jaguars should be favored in most, if not all, of those games.
With six wins already banked, it requires little imagination to envision the Jags registering double-digit victories for the first time in a decade. If they navigate the final months of the season well, they could even compete for top-two seed in the AFC playoff race and a first-round bye. Such goals seemed impossible for Jacksonville at the outset of 2017, but they appear quite possible at this stage.
In a season missing so many stars and featuring off-the-field controversies, the Jaguars have provided one of the most positive, compelling developments.