I’m going to start this article by posing a very simple question: who has the best point differential in the AFC?
Surely it has to be either the Patriots or the Steelers, the two owners of the conference’s best record at 12-3. Maybe it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who currently sit at 9-6 but have three shutouts to their name. Or it could be the Kansas City Chiefs, who struggled in the middle of the season but have responded with three straight victories, each by ten or more points.
If you guessed any one of those teams, you are a very reasonable person. You’re also wrong.
The best point differential in the AFC belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are currently 10-5 and locked into the third seed in the playoffs.
You may not take point differential all that seriously, as teams often score or give up points in garbage time that are completely meaningless to the outcome of the game. That being said, the Jaguars are second in the league in this category, and the winner of the Super Bowl in three of the last four seasons has also finished in the top two in the NFL in scoring margin. Following this logic, though, would mean that Jacksonville would go to the Super Bowl and play the Los Angeles Rams, in a scenario that may precede the apocalypse. But the Jaguars currently find themselves at the top of the conference in scoring margin right now and, perhaps more significantly, they own one of the league’s best defenses, which is particularly important when facing off against offenses like the Patriots and Steelers.
There are, as with any team without serious playoff experience, questions about how legitimate of a contender the Jaguars are. With Jacksonville, their concerns are exacerbated because their quarterback just so happens to be Blake Bortles, who, before this season, averaged 17 interceptions per year for each of his first three NFL seasons. Even when he does play well, he is perceived as not being good enough to lead his team to a championship or, worse, “trash”. While he does make some shockingly bad decisions and throws mind-numbing interceptions from time to time, he is having the best season of his career, as he has put up career highs in completion percentage, QBR, and passer rating, while also posting a career low for interceptions.
This is not to say that Bortles is necessarily a good NFL quarterback; after all, he is coming off a performance in which he threw three interceptions against the league’s 26th-best defense. However, NFL history has shown us that you can win a Super Bowl with less than stellar quarterback play, or quarterback play that starts the season slowly and comes alive at the right time. Here are just a few recent examples of teams winning the Super Bowl in spite of the man they had under center:
- The 1970 Colts (Johnny Unitas/Earl Morrall)
- The 1990 Giants (Jeff Hostetler)
- The 2000 Ravens (Trent Dilfer)
- The 2002 Buccaneers (Brad Johnson)
- The 2015 Broncos (Peyton Manning, in his final season)
This shows that while having a great quarterback certainly helps your cause in trying to win a championship, it is hardly necessary for you to do so. What you do need, though, is a great defense. Luckily, the Jaguars have it.
Jacksonville currently owns the league’s third-best defense as measured by total yards allowed. The only teams who have fared better are the 12-3 Vikings and the Denver Broncos, who have started three different players at quarterback this season. The Jaguars also own the league’s best pass defense, and that is important considering the talent of quarterbacks the team could potentially face in the playoffs (Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, etc.). The weakness in Jacksonville’s defense is its ability to stop the run, as it ranks just 21st in the league in that category. But that run defense is not quite as much of a hindrance to their success because the team has defensive end Calais Campbell, who is second in the NFL in sacks with 14.5. Some have argued for Campbell as the league’s MVP, and that is a fairly ridiculous stretch, but the Jaguars’ front four is good enough to get to the quarterback on a regular basis.
Jacksonville’s secondary is also paramount to their success, as it has pulled down 21 interceptions to this point in the year, which is good for second in football. A.J. Bouye (who was signed in free agency from the Texans after last season), Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and Jalen Ramsey each have at least four picks, and Bouye is second in the league with six. If you’re throwing against this secondary, you should really have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.
Even though I’ve told you all this about how great the Jaguars are, you are still wary of their ability to beat the Patriots and/or the Steelers, the two best teams in the AFC. The good news is that they already have played one of those teams, and the results were promising.
In week five, Jacksonville traveled to Pittsburgh to face off against the Steelers. In that game, they forced Ben Roethlisberger into throwing five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The game was what you would expect and hope for on paper from the Jags: Bortles threw for under 100 yards, running back Leonard Fournette rushed for nearly 200, and the Jaguars forced five turnovers and only had one giveaway. While Bortles would need to play better than that if the Jaguars want to beat Pittsburgh a second time, the early-October contest shows that the Jaguars can win a difficult game on the road if necessary.
Just a side note on that game: many recall that afterwards, the media was taken on a roller coaster ride because Roethlisberger openly speculated that he was in decline and said, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” This off-hand comment, likely intended as a joke, sparked fear and panic in Pittsburgh, as Roethlisberger, to that point in the year, had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Since then, however, the Steelers’ signal-caller has thrown 22 TDs and just seven picks while also completing nearly 66% of his passes. Everyone in Pittsburgh and around America has stopped wondering whether or not he still has it. He clearly does, and the chances of him throwing five interceptions against the same team twice in one season would appear to be low.
The road to the Super Bowl out of the AFC currently appears to revolve around the Patriots and the Steelers. But the Jacksonville Jaguars are perhaps better prepared to navigate that road than anyone, and they have put every team in the AFC, and the NFL, on notice.
The Steelers found out the hard way that the Jaguars are capable of beating anyone in the league on any given day. We’ll see if any other teams have to learn that lesson the hard way before the NFL playoffs are complete.