The Jaguars weren’t supposed to win the AFC South and host a playoff game this season, which was good news for the folks at TIAA Bank Field at the end of October when their 2-6 record made them a candidate for a top five pick in April’s NFL Draft.
But on a partly sunny Sunday in early November the story began to change. Trevor Lawrence brought the Jaguars back from down 17 points to beat the Las Vegas Raiders in front of a stadium focused on the future, yet again.
Suddenly a team that couldn’t win a close game in October had found a way to get it, and it started a fire. They were down seven points to the Ravens late in the fourth quarter and with two minutes to play, the second-year quarterback led a dramatic charge down the field resulting in a touchdown and the game-winning, two-point conversion with seconds left on the clock.
Two weeks later, they trailed the Tennessee Titans 14-7 midway through the first quarter, but by halftime Lawrence staked his team to a 20-14 advantage and never let the Titans catch their breath in a 36-22 win in Nashville, the club’s first since 2013.
You know how the Dallas game ended, with safety Rayshawn Jenkins interception return for a touchdown in overtime, but can you forget the way the quarterback put the team on his shoulders down 21-7 in the first half and how he marched them to a game-tying field goal to force overtime with a “you have to see it to believe it” type of throw to Zay Jones?
Lawrence was widely believed to be a generational talent at the game’s most critical position after a championship career at Clemson, and thanks to a disastrous connection to the worst head coach in recent NFL history, we found ourselves simply holding out hope that he would be pretty good midway through his first season with Doug Pederson.
Then, it all changed. Credit Pederson with a “Coach of the Year” season in which he corrected the mistakes of that lost season and coaxed Lawrence to return to his confident ways.
As Lawrence was finding his footing so too were the trio of free agent receivers brought to Jacksonville last spring. Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram all posted career best seasons and all three contributed to the development of the quarterback and the offense. Who will forget Engram’s 162-yard, two-touchdown day in Nashville as he befuddled the Titans or Jones’ three touchdowns against the Cowboys or Kirk’s crucial touchdown catch in the season finale against Tennessee?
Running back Travis Etienne, who missed all of 2021, posted 1,108 yards and five touchdowns on the strength of five 100-yard games and a 5.2-yard per-carry average. He became a multi-purpose threat every time he was on the field, and we wondered if he would make it all the way back in 2022 — if at all — after the broken foot.
The offensive line allowed only 26 sacks, and that’s playing with a backup left tackle in Walker Little after Cam Robinson went down, backup left guard in Tyler Shatley after Ben Bartch was injured, rookie Luke Fortner at center, a free agent in Brandon Schereff who had struggled to stay on the field in Washington at right guard and a previously underwhelming right tackle in Juwaan Taylor. Taylor is now in line for a rich contract extension and a unit long criticized as thin in numbers and talent is the strength of the team.
The offense gets most of the attention, and with hopes riding on Lawrence’s development this season it was always going to be that way. But what about a defense, which posted a league low nine takeaways in 2021, tripling that to 27 in 2022? That number is tied for the third most in the NFL this season and, most importantly, 11 of those came against the Titans, Cowboys, Jets, Texans and Titans, and three of those were returned for touchdowns, powering the five-game winning streak that turned the season around.
Pederson was telling people as he prepared his team for the wild card game against the Chargers that this still isn’t a one-year fix. There are holes to fill in the secondary, they need a disruptive defensive tackle and a change of pace running back to mix in with Etienne.
I admire Doug and the job he did this season. He was so calm and steady during the five-game losing streak and equally calm and steady during the five-game winning streak. He was the perfect coach to connect with the locker room as a former player and to inspire them as a Super-Bowl-winning coach.
But it is fixed. He’ll get to tinker with it and make it stronger and better. But if you were there when the Jaguars beat the Titans on the final weekend of the season, you know. Duuuval is back and believing in its team, and that wasn’t necessarily supposed to happen in 2022.
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