JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Doug Pederson knew it was a steep task.
The Jaguars were a major rebuilding project when he took the job and Pederson mentioned it several times throughout the offseason.
Don’t expect a quick turnaround.
There’s a reason why Jacksonville has held the No. 1 pick in back-to-back drafts and selected in the top nine all but one year of Shad Khan’s ownership tenure.
But — there’s always a but — Jacksonville (5-8) is actually in the playoff conversation entering Sunday’s home game against the Cowboys (10-3). For a franchise that has perennially been eyeing NFL draft boards come this time of the year, playing games with a purpose other than improving draft position is unusual in Jacksonville in mid-December.
The odds remain long for that to happen, but that it’s even mathematically possible after seasons of 1-15, 3-14 and Urban Meyer shows how the franchise is on the way up.
“That’s why you get into this business, is to win games, but when you look at the big picture of things, I didn’t know necessarily if we were going to be in this position or not,” Pederson said. “Obviously, it could be better, as we know. We are where we are because of our own doing, but it’s one of the things I keep challenging our football team with is you want to be playing meaningful games in December and January.”
Jacksonville went on the road Sunday and waxed the Titans in Nashville 36-22, the first win over Tennessee there since 2013. That win and the Titans’ slide has created a bit of a unique scenario in Pederson’s first season with the Jaguars. While Pederson isn’t talking playoffs — things would have to break perfectly over the final month for Jacksonville to win the AFC South — it is at least a possibility.
There’s one big reason why that possibility exists.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is playing some of the best football in the league right now and looks every bit the player who the Jaguars expected him to be when they picked him No. 1 in the 2021 draft.
Lawrence was 30 of 42 passing for a career-high 368 yards and three touchdowns against the Titans. He also had a rushing touchdown on a play Pederson laughed at Monday.
“It wasn’t a read. It wasn’t a QB pull, it was a handoff. ... He’s a sharp guy, and the linebacker, [No.] 53, came off the edge, and he saw him kind of flash and kind of bend off the corner, and he instinctively pulled the football, stiff-armed him, and dove into the end zone,” Pederson said. “Sort of a bewildered look on the sideline from me and everybody else, like ‘What is he doing?’ He knew what he was doing. It was just a good play.”
Lawrence looked like the generational quarterback against Tennessee and has looked like it the past month. Since a woeful performance in London against the Broncos, Lawrence has been exceptional. In the five games since, he’s 130 for 181 for 1,362 yards and 10 passing touchdowns. That’s a 72% completion percentage and no picks. The Jaguars are 3-2 in those games, with wins over the Raiders, Ravens and Titans.
After two games of getting torched up and down the field, the defense played with a purpose against Tennessee. The pass rush was fierce. Jacksonville had four takeaways and turned those into 20 points.
Jacksonville has remaining games against the Cowboys (Sunday), Jets (Dec. 22), Texans (Jan. 1) and the Titans (Jan. 8). If the Jaguars win out and the Titans lose to either the Chargers, Texans or Cowboys, and then to Jacksonville in Week 18, the Jaguars will win the AFC South.
A loss to the Cowboys and a Titans victory over the Chargers all but eliminates Jacksonville from winning the AFC South. The Jaguars would then have a 1% chance of winning the division, according to FiveThirtyEight. A win over the Cowboys and a Tennessee loss to Los Angeles sends Jacksonville’s AFC South odds all the way up to 39%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Pederson said he’s not discussing the postseason with the team, only the Cowboys.
“No, I really don’t, but I do want to show the team kind of where we are and what’s in front of us and what’s kind of at stake. I think it’s my job to kind of keep those goals in front of us, but I want us to focus on this week,” Pederson said. “I want us to get better this week. This is a a good football team, again, a well-coached football team that’s playing really well in that division and obviously playing well in the NFC, so our work will be cut out for us in practice this week. I don’t want to move too far forward.”