JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Super Bowl champ. Franchise rebuilder. Quarterback whisperer. Fortune teller?
Add that to Doug Pederson’s list.
“Coach Pederson said it a few weeks ago, ‘I’ve got a crystal ball. This thing’s going to come down to Week 18, and we’re going to have a shot.’ We all jumped on board. We believed it,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said on Wednesday.
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The Jaguars didn’t look like a playoff team near the midway point of the season, sagging to a 2-6 mark and finding ways to lose close games weekly. With a post-bye surge, Jacksonville (8-8) has positioned itself for a winner-take-all game against the Titans (7-9) on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. A victory will deliver the Jaguars the AFC South title for the first time since 2017 and guarantee them a home playoff game as the No. 4 seed.
Credit the turnaround to the players, but credit the belief in them to Pederson and the Jaguars coaching staff. Players said that Pederson told them last month that the postseason wasn’t just a dream this year, that it was actually possible.
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“It feels good knowing what we had to do to get here, but also, the job’s not finished. We have to win this game to get in, and then moving forward, we kind of get what we earn every week. We’re embracing that,” Lawrence said.
“I think that’s kind of how it’s been for us. Like I’ve said before, it’s been like that for us for the past month, really. The team’s responded well to that. I’m proud of the situation we’ve put ourselves in. It wasn’t easy to get in this spot, especially the way we started the season, and here we are with an opportunity to win the division.”
Pederson’s vision when he arrived in Jacksonville was rebuilding a franchise that has struggled since Shad Khan’s purchase of the team in 2012. It has just one winning season in that stretch, the out-of-nowhere run to the AFC South title and AFC championship game in 2017. Since then, the Jaguars had bordered on bad (1-15 in 2020) to embarrassing (Urban Meyer’s tenure).
Those struggles gave Jacksonville back-to-back No. 1 overall draft picks. One of those was Lawrence, who has ascended to franchise quarterback material in his second season. The other was linebacker Travon Walker, who has had an impact as a rookie but is still learning the nuances of the NFL. The biggest addition was that of Pederson, who won the Super Bowl as a backup quarterback with the Packers in 1996 and then as a coach with the Eagles in his second season in 2017.
“We kept putting in the work, and we’re here now. We knew this was coming, but we had to take care of business every week to get here. That’s the same thing this week,” Lawrence said. “We have to stay in the moment.”
Lawrence said the Jaguars knew of Pederson’s credentials when he was hired and that he didn’t have to flaunt those to the players. The Jaguars were just looking for a leader after the trainwreck experience of Meyer and Pederson has been an exceptional one for the franchise.
The Jaguars have won six of their last eight games, including their first four-game winning streak since the 2017 season. Lawrence has become the face of the franchise in full, especially during Jacksonville’s second-half renaissance. That streak has included heart-stopping wins over the Ravens and Cowboys, as well as a blowout of the Titans in Nashville.
“You look at what he’s done here, the energy, not only the Xs and Os and football stuff, but just the energy, the culture that we’ve created here. Obviously, he’s had a huge part in bringing here,” Lawrence said. “It’s tough to do, especially in the first year and a bunch of new people. I just can’t say enough about the job he’s done and how much I love playing for him and appreciate him, so 100%, I think he should be in that [coach of the year] conversation.”
A win over Tennessee and third-string quarterback (and former Jaguars player) Joshua Dobbs would officially accelerate Jacksonville’s rebuild into the here and now. While the NFL world has been squarely focused on the health of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin since Monday night, the hope for his continued improvement would make for an even more uplifting Week 18 across the league.
“It really puts things into perspective,” Lawrence said. “That’s the main thing. It puts it into perspective. Life is fragile, and you just never know what could happen. It is scary.”