5 Reasons the Jaguars Will Win the AFC South
Published on August 10, 2017
The Jacksonville Jaguars may have been the greatest success story in the history of NFL expansion.
They not only reached the playoffs in their second year of existence, they went all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville followed that up with playoff appearances in each of the next 3 years, including another AFC Championship Game showing in 1999.
Things have been nowhere near as sunny in Jacksonville since then, however. At least when it comes to the fortunes of their NFL franchise. The Jaguars enter 2017 mired in the fourth-longest active playoff drought in the league, having failed to qualify for post-season play since going 11-5 and reaching the divisional round 10 years ago under Jack Del Rio.
With the Jaguars coming off a miserable 3-13 campaign last year, not many people are expecting them to end that drought this season. That includes the bookmakers at Bovada, who list the Jags’ season win total at 6.5 and offer +350 odds on them making the playoffs. Meanwhile, BetOnline makes Jacksonville a +600 longshot to win the AFC South.
But as we all know, surprises happen every year in the NFL. Here are 5 reasons the Jaguars can provide a huge one by winning the AFC South.
The Gus Bradley era is over in Jacksonville, and that’s a really good thing.
Bradley’s four-year tenure as Jags coach (mercifully brought to an end with 2 games to go last season) will go down in the annals as one of the worst head coaching jobs in NFL history. His winning percentage of .226 (14-48) is the worst of any coach to oversee 50-plus games in the Super Bowl era and second-worst of all-time.
It may not be fair to pin all of the Jaguars’ woes on Bradley since he took over the team at the start of a rebuilding phase. But the captain goes down with the ship, and that ship had some pretty big holes during Bradley’s time in northern Florida. It’s also worth noting that in the game after Bradley was canned, the Jaguars routed the Tennessee Titans 38-17. Jacksonville then nearly pulled off another outright upset as 5.5-point underdogs in Indianapolis, losing its regular-season finale on a last-second touchdown pass by Andrew Luck.
Doug Marrone took over the Jags as interim head coach for those final 2 games of the year, then was hired as the permanent bench boss immediately following the season. You can question Marrone’s judgment when it comes to coaching jobs (this is the guy who opted out of his contract as Bills head coach 3 years ago, then ended up settling for an assistant coaching job in Jacksonville), but . In 2014, he guided the Bills to a 9-7 record (their only winning season since 2004) and Buffalo’s defense ranked fourth in the NFL. Prior to that, Marrone led Syracuse to a pair of 8-win seasons and 2 bowl victories during his 4 years with the Orange.
The Jags also have new leadership at the top (sort of). Tom Coughlin, who was Jacksonville’s first-ever coach and led the team from expansion weaklings to a powerhouse in the AFC, is now the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations. I do worry about the potential for Coughlin and Marrone to butt heads a bit, but having a man like Coughlin in charge of player personnel decisions can only be seen as a good thing for the Jags.
Blake Bortles gets a lot of the blame in Jacksonville for his failure to develop into the franchise quarterback most of us expected him to become. But he hasn’t exactly had a lot of help around him, especially when it comes to a credible running game to keep defenses honest.
In the past 5 years, Jacksonville has finished in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards every single time, including third-last in 2012 and second-last in 2013. Part of that may have had to do with regularly having to play from behind, forcing the Jags to throw the ball more and conserve the clock. But it’s also been due to a lack of star power at the running back position, where Jacksonville hasn’t had a 1,000-yard runner since Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing in 2011.
All that could change now that Leonard Fournette is in town. The fourth-overall pick in last year’s draft was already when he was playing Pop Warner football, and the buzz only grew during a stellar college career at LSU. 2 years ago, he averaged a league-high 168.2 rushing yards per game with the Tigers.
We’ve seen rookie running backs turn the NFL on its ear before (see Ezekiel Elliott, 2016.) Don’t rule out the possibility of Fournette making a huge impact in his rookie season. Jacksonville’s offensive line may not be that great, but Fournette doesn’t need the best blockers in the world in order to make his way downfield. His rare combination of size (6-foot-1, 240 pounds), athleticism and speed make him a nightmare for opponents to tackle straight on, and he also isn’t easy to track down from behind.
If Fournette can move the chains on the ground, it will only help the Jags protect Bortles better, make the play-action pass more effective and open up opportunities for some pretty decent receivers downfield. Maybe we’ll finally see another glimpse of the Bortles who used to light up opponents during his days at Central Florida.
Lost in Jacksonville’s 3-13 campaign a year ago was how good the defense was. The Jaguars actually allowed the sixth-fewest yards in the entire NFL, finishing behind only the vaunted defenses in Houston, Minnesota, Denver and Seattle, along with an underrated defense in Arizona.
Jacksonville’s defense probably didn’t get the attention it deserved because the Jags allowed the eighth-most points in the league. However, a lot of those scores were actually the fault of the Jacksonville offense, as they have been for a long time. Though Bortles has only played 3 seasons in the NFL, he already . And when Bortles’ interceptions weren’t being returned for touchdowns, they often gave opponents a short field to score against the Jags defense.
Jacksonville’s defense looks even better this season. In free agency, they signed a trio of impact players in cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive lineman Calais Campbell and strong safety Barry Church. They’ve also got 3 second-year starters in corner Jalen Ramsey, end Yannick Ngakoue and middle linebacker Myles Jack, so it’s safe to expect improvement from those core players as well.
The pass rush is still a bit of a weakness for the Jags and might help explain why their defense had a league-low 7 interceptions in 2017. But their secondary looks really, really good. If opposing quarterbacks have to hold onto the ball a little longer to find open receivers, the Jags might be able to get to them via the blitz and either improve on their low sack totals or start generating more turnovers. Either way, as long as Bortles can cut down on the gift touchdowns, the Jacksonville defense may finally get the recognition it deserves this year as one of the league’s best.
The AFC South might be the worst division in football over the past decade.
A 9-7 record is all the Texans have needed to win the division the past 2 years. Only 1 team from the AFC South – the 2014 Colts – has advanced to the conference championship since the Colts went to the Super Bowl in 2009. And the 2012 Colts were the only wild card winner to come from the AFC South since 2008, promptly losing 24-9 in the first round against Baltimore.
The door looks wide open once again in the South. Houston may have its quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, but it’s unlikely that either he or Tom Savage will resolve the Texans’ perennial issues at pivot this season. The best QB in the division (Luck) remains sidelined following off-season surgery on his shoulder, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll rejoin the Colts in time for the start of the regular season. And though the Titans look much improved, they’re still a franchise that has posted just 2 winning records in its last 8 years.
The point of this article was to list reasons the Jaguars can win the AFC South. But the better question might be: Why can’t they?
It doesn’t usually take long to lose hope in Jacksonville.
According to Athlon Sports, their 7-24 record (.226 winning percentage) in September over the last 8 years is the worst in the entire NFL. It’s hard to stay excited about your season potential when you’re regularly digging yourself a 1-3 or 0-4 hole in the first month of the year. Talk quickly turns to grooming young talent for the future and identifying positions that need to be addressed in the draft, rather than focusing on winning next week’s game.
At least there’s potential this year for the Jags to find themselves in a better position when the calendar turns to October. They start the year at Houston, where the Texans could struggle in their first game with either Savage or Watson at quarterback, and then their next 3 opponents (the Titans, Ravens, and Jets) are teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year.
In their 2016 opener, the Jaguars put up a great effort in a spread-covering loss at home to the Packers. As long as there’s hope, Jacksonville can be a dangerous team, and their soft early schedule may help them keep that hope for a bit longer than usual.
Not that the rest of their schedule is a Rubik’s Cube, either. Jacksonville will play the second-softest slate in the NFL based on last year’s records. Division rivals Indianapolis and Tennessee play the other two easiest schedules in the NFL in 2017, but at least the Jags can go into almost every game feeling like they’ve got a chance to win.
For a team that went 3-13 last year, there is a lot to like about Jacksonville. But many of us also expected better things from the Jags in 2016, and look how that turned out.
I like the direction the organization is going in with the hiring of Marrone and Coughlin, the upgrades to the defense and the drafting of Fournette. However, as long as Bortles is the quarterback, I’m not quite ready to buy the Jaguars as a division champion, even at this price. Besides, I’m already invested in the Titans to win the AFC South.
But I think they’re still at least a season away from challenging for division supremacy, even in the weak South.