The Jacksonville Jaguars had every opportunity to make the 2023 season a success. Instead they made it a disaster, culminating with their 28-20 loss at the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon. The Jaguars needed only to beat a 5-11 team to clinch the AFC South. But Trevor Lawrence threw two interceptions and got stacked up shy of the goalline on a decisive fourth-and-goal keeper from the Titans’ one-yard line. A last-gasp effort by the Jaguars wasn’t enough to overcome a 15-point deficit entering the fourth quarter. And now the organization embarks on an offseason of figuring out how a year with such promise went so awry. The Houston Texans, not the Jags, will represent the division in the playoffs.
The Jaguars have been lousy for most of the 21st century, and they reached fresh depths of ignominy when they posted the league’s worst record in both 2020 and 2021. (In the latter year, the franchise became a special kind of embarrassment because of the slapstick leadership of an overmatched head coach, Urban Meyer.) But the team made a quantum leap in 2022. Lawrence, the franchise quarterback they’d drafted with the first pick a season earlier, blossomed into one of the better quarterbacks in football. Edge rusher Josh Allen led a feisty defense. The Jaguars mounted a late-season charge to win the AFC South, and then pulled off a thrilling comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers. They even scared the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the next round.
This season was the inverse, as the Jaguars started 8-3 and then faded to the tune of a 1-5 finish to go 9-8. The record was the same as a year ago. The feeling surrounding it couldn’t be more different.
Lawrence plays the game’s most important position and didn’t have the year he surely envisioned. The 2021 No 1 overall pick was far from terrible, but he wasn’t able to elevate an offense that lacked a real No 1 receiver and revealed depth problems when key target Christian Kirk missed the last month of the season with an injury. Lawrence had a close connection with tight end Evan Engram and pulled off some explosive plays with wideout Calvin Ridley, but the passing game never clicked into better than average production. The Jags were 15th in the NFL with 6.2 yards per throw entering the week and 18th in passer rating. Lawrence has a tremendous arm but did not get top-end results from it, and his last – and most important – pass of the season was airmailed over Engram’s head on fourth down. It was the kind of moment where someone like Patrick Mahomes or excels.
Of particular concern: Lawrence halved his interception rate from 2.8% of his throws in his rookie year to 1.4% in 2022. But in 2023 the rate jumped to 2.5%, aided by those two picks on Sunday. It is unfathomable that the Jaguars won’t still make Lawrence their long-term signal-caller, and it’s worth remembering that he played the stretch without one of his top wideouts and with a shoulder injury that appeared to dog him. But he, and his team, have to grow.
Sticking by Lawrence is an easy call, but the Jaguars have tougher decisions ahead of them. The biggest of those is Allen, who had 17.5 sacks this season to pace the defense. He is a free agent after making $10.9m in 2023. Someone will pay him handsomely, and it remains to be seen whether that will be Jacksonville. Ridley, one of the team’s key receivers, is also set to hit the open market. And the Jaguars may also want to look closely at administrative changes, maybe including (to start) replacing Press Taylor as offensive coordinator. After a final two months like the Jaguars just had, even people higher up the org chart will receive scrutiny.
MVP of the week
Nico Collins, wide receiver, Houston Texans. There were a few beneficiaries of the Jaguars’ meltdown, none bigger than the Texans, who claimed the AFC South as a result. But Houston had to make their own luck, and Collins, the third-year receiver out of Michigan, delivered. On Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, Collins caught all nine targets from CJ Stroud and posted 195 yards and a touchdown on them in a 23-19 victory. A 75-yard score on Houston’s first play from scrimmage set the tone, and Collins made another key catch late in the second quarter on a third down, setting up Houston’s next touchdown.
Stat of the week
1935. That was the last time an NFL division saw each of its teams finish with a winning record. That season predated by 35 years the AFL-NFL merger that formed the modern league. But the AFC North matched the feat on Sunday, when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns 31-14 in a game with no playoff stakes for either team. (The Browns were guaranteed the AFC’s No 5 seed; the Bengals were out of the hunt.) The Baltimore Ravens have the conference’s best record at 13-4, and the Steelers closed with three wins to finish 10-7 and extend Mike Tomlin’s career-long streak of 17 years in a row without a losing campaign. Every team in the AFC North, except the Bengals, will continue playing in the postseason.
Video of the week
Does anything sum up Bill Belichick’s season better than the head coach shivering on the sideline as the New England Patriots lost to the almost as woeful New York Jets? And Sunday could well be the last time we see Belichick lead the Pats. Fox insider Jay Glazer, reported Sunday that Belichick will not return to the Patriots for the 2024 season. It was the most explicit report yet from a credible outlet to indicate Belichick’s time in New England is up. The game itself was a fitting end to an excruciating campaign for the Pats: a 17-3 loss to the Jets, a fellow non-competitor in the AFC East. In fitting fashion if it was Belichick’s last game, the defeat ended a 15-game New England win streak against the team that has gone longer without a playoff appearance (2010 was the last) than any other in the NFL. The Pats ended the season with a 4-13 record, the worst of Belichick’s campaign. At least he – or his potential successor – have the consolation of a top-five draft pick.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Buffalo Bills aren’t the juggernaut they have been in recent season but quit is noticeably absent from their game. On Sunday, they won their fifth game in a row to capture the No 2 seed in the AFC, something that looked pretty remote when they were floundering midseason. Josh Allen said Sunday was a mirror of the season as a whole: they trailed the Miami Dolphins 14-7 at halftime and he had been intercepted twice before they fought back for a 21-14 victory. Allen also said this team is the best he has played for in terms of “togetherness”. The Dolphins, meanwhile, seem to have difficulty killing off games despite their offensive weapons.
— The Detroit Lions, having a dream season as NFC North champions for the first time since the division’s formation, sustained a potentially major blow. Tight end Sam LaPorta, who earlier set the rookie catch record at his position with 86 grabs, left the Lions’ 30-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings after he hyperextended his knee. That LaPorta was in the game at all was mildly curious, as the Lions were all but locked into the NFC’s No 3 playoff seed and his health for next weekend’s wildcard game ought to have been a priority. Alas, his status is now uncertain, and so is the Lions’ passing game for as long as their playoff run lasts. A flicker of good news came after the game from head coach Dan Campbell: “It’s not as bad as it looked, but it’s not good news,” he said, adding the team would learn more on Monday. “I know it looked awful.”
— The Lions face the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs. Few tipped the Rams to do much this season and even fewer (maybe no one) would have predicted their fifth-round pick Puka Nacua would help get them there by setting rookie records for receiving yards (1,486 yards) and catches (105). The customary asterisk needs to be added as this is a 17-game season but it’s still a brilliant surprise performance to match – and perhaps surpass – Brock Purdy’s Mr Irrelevant heroics from last year. One other note from the game: Matthew Stafford now faces his old team, the Lions, in the wildcard round. Lions fans were mostly behind him when he won the Super Bowl with the Rams. They won’t be so accommodating this time around.
— Dallas Cowboys kicker Brandon Aubrey started his career on an astonishing run: He knocked through 35 successful field goals in a row, the longest streak in league history for a kicker at the beginning of his career. That run of flawlessness ended on Sunday when the Washington Commanders’ Joshua Pryor blocked an Aubrey attempt and set up a 66-yard touchdown runback by his Washington teammate, Jace Whittaker. NFL kickers have gradually become better and better in recent years, but Aubrey’s run of no misses was excessive even by the freakishly accurate standards of his kicking colleagues.
— Jordan Love’s first full season as the Green Bay Packers didn’t turn out too badly then. He threw for 30 touchdowns – better than Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers in their first full seasons (caveat: this was a 17-game campaign) – and he led the Packers to the playoffs after Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears. Once again, it looks like Green Bay have handled a quarterback succession with aplomb.
— Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles rested plenty of starters and suffered injuries to AJ Brown and Jalen Hurts on Sunday but their 27-10 loss to a bad New York Giants team was … ouch. They’ve now lost five of their last six games as they prepare to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wildcard round. Luckily for the Eagles, the Bucs didn’t look brilliant as they claimed the NFC South by scraping past the worst team in the league, the Carolina Panthers. But this Eagles team doesn’t look anything like the version that came so close to winning the Super Bowl a year ago.
NFL wildcard playoff games
NFC: Philadelphia Eagles (5) v No 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4)
Green Bay Packers (7) v Dallas Cowboys (2)
Los Angeles Rams (6) v Detroit Lions (3)
AFC: Cleveland Browns (5) v Houston Texans (4)
Pittsburgh Steelers (7) v Buffalo Bills (2)
Miami Dolphins (6) v Kansas City Chiefs (3)