JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Get ready, Jaguars fans.
The latest big game in a stunning turnaround of a season is up on Saturday afternoon as the Jaguars (10-8) visit the Chiefs (14-3) in the AFC divisional playoffs at 4:30 p.m. How unlikely was a Jaguars playoff game this year? Jacksonville picked first in back-to-back drafts and was sitting at 3-7 through 10 weeks of the regular season. Only two other teams in NFL history had managed to go from No. 1 in the draft to winning a division title in the following season.
The Jaguars made that three.
Doug Pederson has turned this franchise around faster than anyone could have projected. He’s fast-tracked the Jacksonville rebuilding process behind a generational quarterback prospect — and franchise savior — and a vastly improved defense that has infused Jacksonville with as much football energy as its had in the city since the late 1990s.
That arc started in 1996 with an uptick that’s felt very similar to this season. Jacksonville got hot at the right time and ultimately turned that into four straight playoff appearances. While the out-of-nowhere run in 1996 — this year’s team was also 3-6 at the midway point — sent Jacksonville into a football frenzy, the seasons that followed were expected to be good. And they were.
This year’s Jaguars team, much like 1996, started the turnaround. The expectations behind Pederson and quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be through the roof in 2023. But right, the playoffs are still in full stride and the Jaguars, even if it’s at least a year earlier than expected, are planning to stick around.
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“Whether it’s our money or house money, we’re here. It’s a credit to those players in the locker room and the coaching staff for believing in each other and working hard,” Pederson said. “What we’ve done down the stretch regardless of mishaps, we’re here. I try to block out the best I can with the team, you just block out the noise, you block out the negativity, you block out whether it’s lack of respect or whatever. We have a young quarterback, whatever it might be. We’re one of four in the AFC left and that says a lot. That says a lot about these guys, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
On paper, it’s not quite David against Goliath, but perhaps David against Goliath’s little brother. Kansas City and star quarterback Patrick Mahomes are 8.5-point favorites to reach their fifth consecutive AFC title game. Jacksonville was an underdog against the Chargers in its playoff opener but ripped off a historic comeback from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 win. It’s the second meeting of the season between the teams, but that first matchup seems like years ago. Kansas City beat the Jaguars 27-17 in Week 10, a game where Jacksonville had three takeaways and did little with them.
The crowd at Arrowhead Stadium is different than most venues, and it’s generally regarded as the most challenging place in the NFL to play.
“We played there earlier in the year, but this is a little bit different. It’s a playoff game, divisional round, so the stakes are higher, so I expect them to be even crazier, more packed stadium, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to go play, and you’ve got to make sure you communicate,” Lawrence said. “That’s the one thing. We’ve got to get in and out of the huddle. We’ve got to get to the line of scrimmage so we have time to communicate because everything naturally takes a little longer when it’s loud.”
Jacksonville is a far more dangerous team than in that game.
Lawrence has been a more confident and far better player since that game. The Jaguars are 7-1 since the loss to Kansas City. He’s passed for 2,067 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions since Jacksonville’s trip to Arrowhead. And that turnover total is skewed since four of those picks came last week. Lawrence has completed 66% of his passes in that stretch. No doubt that Lawrence’s ascent has been the main storyline, but the defense as a whole is right there, too. Jacksonville has forced 13 turnovers and has tightened up on its run defense. It has allowed just one 300-yard passing game since the bye week and that came in the disastrous Week 13 loss to the Lions.
Will the second-half Lawrence from the Chargers game show up? Lawrence matched his career high with four touchdown passes in the playoff opener against Los Angeles.
It isn’t Florida weather in Kansas City. Accuweather for Saturday at the stadium is forecasting it to be 35 degrees at game time and for a mix of snow and rain. Pederson said that doesn’t change anything for the Jaguars.
“It really doesn’t. You’ve still got to go play. You might switch a few things here and there, maybe some plays you’ve got in your game plan,” he said. “Other than that, you can’t let the weather affect you. It’s the same for them as it is for us, and you’ve just got to go play. I guess the biggest thing would be the ball security issue. Make sure you take care of the football.”
The playoff history
The Jaguars roared back to beat the Chargers 31-30 last week, the largest comeback in franchise history and the third-largest rally in NFL playoff history. Jacksonville is 8-7 all-time in the playoffs. It is 2-3 in its second-round games, including 2-2 on the road in those games.
The series history
The teams have met 14 times, including in Week 10 this season. The Jaguars are 6-8 in those games, including a 2-5 mark at Arrowhead Stadium.
The tight end matchup
Travis Kelce needs no introduction. He’s the best in the league at his position. His 110 receptions, 1,338 receiving yards and 12 TDs all led the league. Evan Engram has had a career year for the Jaguars. He was fourth in the league in receiving yardage and tied for fourth in the league with 73 catches. Engram isn’t nearly the scoring threat as Kelce is (not many are) but he’s proven a matchup nightmare as he’s gotten more and more involved in the offense. Those two players will be integral in Saturday’s game.