As fanbases go, no one had a more joyous last few weeks than Jacksonville. It wasn’t just following the Jags’ astonishing Week 15 overtime win over Dallas by taking care of the Jets 19-3 on Thursday night. It wasn’t just because that was the team’s third win in a row. Or that at 7-8 they now sit atop the AFC South and can clinch a home playoff game in Duval County with a Week 18 win over the reeling Titans.
Yes, Jacksonville are peaking at the right time. But their recent success drives home just how much the dark days of this franchise are over. It’s kind of a miracle, really. To excel in the present, one must learn from the past. For a while, it wasn’t clear if Jags owner Shad Khan was capable of turning around the franchise he purchased in 2012.
Jacksonville tout just one winning season since 2007 and finished dead last in the AFC South the past four years. At one point Doug Marrone appeared equipped to right the ship when he took the reins in 2017. Marrone’s Jags were a defensive juggernaut that season, the best in the NFL thanks to All-Pros like Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey and AJ Buoye. They lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game and then quickly unraveled. The defense regressed, then many of its key players were traded away, and Marrone had six different starting quarterbacks in four seasons, none of whom were memorable. (OK, Minshew Mania is the exception.)
All roads led to the team’s 1-15 record in 2020 ,which led to landing Trevor Lawrence in 2020. But unfortunately, 1-15 also led to Urban Meyer as Marrone’s replacement. He was hand-picked, heavily recruited out of retirement, as if college success equated to winning records.
Meyer’s 13-game run was a train wreck from start to finish. Not only was the team losing on a weekly basis from sloppy play, bad in-game coaching and a lack of talent, Meyer was a walking scandal. His rap sheet while with Jacksonville started with hiring strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who was forced from Iowa after racist remarks. Then he lost more favor when he declined to take the team plane home after a loss in Cincinnati, only later that night to be captured on film in a bar with a woman near his lap that was definitely not his wife. As the season continue to unfold, so did tensions. There were myriad reports of Meyer treating his players and coaches like subservient children. In a staff meeting he reportedly called himself a “winner” and his assistant coaches “losers”.
It wasn’t exactly the healthiest environment for a rookie starting quarterback who was expected to lead this bottom-feeding franchise to the promised land. While Lawrence showed glimpses of the attributes that made him the most anticipated No 1 draft pick since Andrew Luck, his year under Meyer was a struggle like it was for every one of his teammates. It was evident that Lawrence had the tools to be a star quarterback in the league, but would Jacksonville just chase another showy name not equipped to helm a franchise.
Enter Doug Pederson. An experienced, Super Bowl-winning coach, who is quarterback-friendly and decidedly not flashy. Other names were floated, for example, Byron Leftwich, but the steady hand of Pederson was exactly who this organization needed. He was exactly who Lawrence needed.
Lawrence, while surviving the maze that was the Jags in 2021 was clearly ready for the leap with Pederson in town, as expressed to Colin Cowherd back in July:
“I think I learned a lot from last year. Obviously, you get a different perspective than when you’re just winning like I had in the past. So I have a lot greater appreciation for winning, for one. And then just being able to overcome some of those challenges, face all of them, and then now going to a new year with a lot of confidence, good team around us, great staff – I’m really excited.”
Pederson was also ready for the leap but warned against a quick turnaround upon his hire. “We’re not just going to snap our fingers and start winning football games.”
Yet with Pederson’s radical improvements to team culture, and Lawrence playing so well he might be exceeding the hype, that’s kind of what has happened. Lawrence’s rise has been astonishing even to those who understood what went into the hype. Namely, the arm strength, the accuracy, the ability to move with agility in and out the pocket, his pre- and post-snap decision, including when he understands his ability to make off balance throws like this:
Lawrence shined once in again in the Jags win over the Jets and is arguably the hottest quarterback in football. But the win also showcased how complete this team is, how far they’ve come in such a short period of time. The offense was prolific against a Jets defense that features Quinnen Williams and an elite secondary. Tight end Evan Engram finished with 113-yard game and continues to prove his worth. The defense held the Jets to 66 rushing yards. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but it was a team win. It was a win.
Just like that, Jacksonville is team that wins games and is better than its 7-8 record. A team that can make noise in the playoffs. A team that with Lawrence under center throwing to Engram, Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and next season, Calvin Ridley, should be in the playoffs for years to come. Sorry Doug, but you did actually snap your fingers and start winning.
MVP of the week
Greg Joseph, Vikings. The holiday season, heck the entire season, has been full of Minnesota Miracles. Just one week after overcoming a 33-point deficit to miraculously defeat the Colts, Greg Joseph catapulted the Vikings to their 11th win in one-score games when he drilled a 61-yarder as time expired to defeat the stunned Giants 27-24. It was a baller moment for a baller team that is living a dream season. Joseph was perfect against the Giants and has now made back-to-back field goals from 50 or more yards after missing five straight.
Joseph wasn’t the only hero. Mr Gritty himself, Justin Jefferson, had 12 catches for 133 yards and a score. Jefferson’s 1,756 yards eclipsed Randy Moss for the franchise record in a season. Jefferson made a slew of catches in tight coverage, as did tight end TJ Hockenson, who was an absolute beast with 13 catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns. At 12-3, the Vikings are more entrenched as the No 2 seed with winnable games against the Bears and Packers to close out the season.
Video of the week
Fifth years after the Immaculate Reception. A day to honor the life of Franco Harris. It doesn’t get more storybook ending than this.
Stat of the week
15. That’s right: 15 straight wins for Green Bay in the month of December. Things looked grim for the Packers at the end of November. Back-to-back losses to the Titans and Eagles left them at 4-8 and thinking more about draft position than playoff position. But the calendar turned and the Pack woke up. After consecutive wins against the Bears and Rams, the Packers squeezed out a pivotal 26-20 win over the Dolphins in a true tale of two halves. In the first, the Miami’s run game had its way and Tua Tagovailoa hit his usually deep bombs to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Aaron Rodgers and the Pack were off balance, literally. But in the second half, the Dolphins struggled mightily. Tagovailoa – aka Turntheballova – threw interceptions on three consecutive drives. The Packers defense took advantage of every Dolphins’ miscue, and the offense was sharper across the board. Green Bay should have been more aggressive than an AJ Dillon run up the middle on 3rd-and-five at the Miami 10 up 23-20 with a little over 2:00 remaining but it mattered not.
With two weeks to go, the playoffs are suddenly a real possibility for Green Bay. The easiest, but not only, path is to win out (v Detroit and Minnesota) and have the Commanders lose once or the Giants lose twice.
Quote of the week
“I think today secured his defensive MVP. I don’t know how it doesn’t.” – 49ers tight end George Kittle on defensive end Nick Bosa after San Francisco’s 37-20 win over Washington
The 49ers are stacked with elite players on defense – Fred Warner, Arik Armstead and Dre Greenlaw, to name a few – but no one is as disruptive as Bosa. He added two more sacks to his total and now stands at 17 and a half, which is two behind Aldon Smith and Niners’ single-season record. The all-time NFL mark is 22 and a half sacks, achieved by Michael Strahan in 2001 and TJ Watt in 2021.
Elsewhere around the league
Dallas and Philadelphia treated us to mesmerizing match with a ton of action. The Eagles took a two-score lead and the Cowboys clawed back, then the Eagles took another lead and the Cowboys again clawed back. Gardner Minshew, starting in place of the injured Jalen Hurts, played well overall, though the offense was missing a dimension without its dual-threat quarterback. But in the end, it was the Cowboys’ defense with four takeaways that sealed a 40-34 win. With the win, the door remains slightly ajar for Dallas to take the NFC East crown, but their postseason ticket has been punched.
Dak Prescott missed the first matchup between these teams, and Hurts was sidelined Saturday. Maybe just maybe we’ll see a rematch in the playoffs with both starters suited up.
The Bills toppled Chicago 35-13, but Josh Allen threw yet another pick in the red zone, this one into the wind and coverage. He added another interception bringing his season total to 13, tied with Davis Mills and Matt Ryan and one behind Derek Carr. Not the best company to keep if Buffalo plan to go far in the playoffs.
The Lions lather is quickly dissipating after a disappointing 37-23 loss to Carolina. Detroit’s main weakness was on full display as the Panthers rushed for 320 yards. The 7-8 Lions are now going to need a lot of help to advance to the postseason.
File under least surprising news ever: Sean Payton wants to return to the sidelines in 2023. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Payton is so intent on a coaching return that he’s trying to line up former Broncos head coach Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator. Payton, given his Super Bowl ring and .630 winning percentage, will likely be the top coaching candidate on the table. Arizona, with its young quarterback in need of molding and defense in need of a pulse, appear an ideal match for the Payton-Fangio duo.
And finally, let’s give it up for the winner of this week’s most egregious roughing the passer call: