- 1. The Jaguars are going to be the 2010 AFC South champions. Despite the surprising one-game lead the Jags currently hold over Indianapolis, the Colts will be division champs if they win out. This makes the December 19th game in Indy absolutely pivotal for both teams, as it has effectively become the AFC South championship game, which of course means hosting at least one home playoff game. And I like the Jaguars’ chances; despite a tough loss in New York, the Jaguars are undeniably firing on all cylinders. The offense is balanced and efficient and the defense is playing aggressively, while minimizing the egregious breakdowns in coverage and form we saw early in the season. The Colts are embarrassingly one-dimensional on offense and defense, with no running game or run defense to speak of. This will allow the Jags to exert their will on offense, control the clock, and focus all of their defensive efforts on stopping Picksix Manning and his receivers in the limited opportunities they will have the ball in their hands. If the Jaguars can limit Manning (or force him to limit himself, as has been the case recently), they should walk away from Lucas Oil Stadium as division champs. The Colts are an indoor, undersized, finesse (read: WEAK) team – they are NOT looking forward to playing the Jacksonville squad they saw brutalize the Titans, who were supposed to be the tough guys in the division.
- 2. Take a moment to reflect at where this team is and how quickly it’s gotten there. 2007 was an exciting year for the Jaguars, capped off with a thrilling last-minute playoff win in Pittsburgh and a battle with Tom Brady and the perfect Patriots that went right down to the wire. Hopes were high in ’08, but we quickly learned that this team was not on the rise, as we had hoped, but was actually chock full of has-beens and deadbeats and desperately in need of full-scale repair. There has been a lot of change in the last two years: the Great Roster Purge of ’09 , the changing of the guard at GM, the total makeover of Jacksonville’s personnel and philosophy – Jacksonville always has high expectations, but realistically, to be challenging for the division crown (which I expect this team to be doing every year for the next several seasons) after only one year of rebuilding is truly incredible and a testament to Wayne Weaver’s sense of direction and Gene Smith’s uncanny ability to build and groom a roster.
- 3. The front lines have become the identity of our team. If you know Gene Smith’s philosophy (draft the big guys early, win at the line of scrimmage, etc), this should come as no surprise. The offensive and defensive lines are jelling and dominating their counterparts on a weekly basis. Vinny Manuawai, Brad Meester, and Jordan Black have been powerhouses in the running game, absolutely mowing over whoever is in their path and in 2010, there aren’t many teams doing that. On paper, that gives the Jaguars’ the ability to control the clock, convert 3rd-and-shorts, and achieve a balanced, efficient offense. On the field, it’s offering one-on-one coverage for our receivers, opening up play-action, and completely demoralizing opposing defenses. The human element of a powerful running game is perhaps its most advantageous benefit – the frustration of being taken out of a play because a blocker threw you on your backside and not being able to get to the sideline for some Gatorade because you can’t stop your opponent on third down will crush your soul – we saw it happen to the Giants until they got a second half spark and we saw it happen with the Titans, who looked like they were ready to pack it up for the season after the Jags’ first drive. On the other side of the ball, Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu are becoming downright beastly, routinely beating double teams to get in the backfield and harass the quarterback and redirect runners. The only area that needs improvement is the pass rush, where the Jaguars could really use Aaron Kampman right now. Austen Lane and Jeremy are speedy and tenacious, but getting held up just enough to give opposing QB’s a decent pocket on most plays. However, they have only 9 starts between them and there’s enough improvement to suggest that they could become a force by January, especially with Potroast and Tyson occupying extra blockers and collapsing the middle of the pocket.
- 4. Special teams is slumping and needs to pick it up. Going into the season, this was supposed to be a huge strength for the Jaguars and looked like it would be a force to be reckoned with for the first couple of games. Adam Podlesh was looking like he had finally broken through, but is statistically mediocre, ranking middle-of-the-pack in all punting statistics including: gross average, net average, and punts downed inside the 20. Scobee was looking like the best kicker in the NFL for the first month and a half, but has been far less reliable on field goals as of late and is also underwhelmingly average on field goal percentage, starting field position from kickoffs, and touchbacks statistics. There hasn’t been much excitement in the coverage and return games either, despite the pickups made in the draft and free agency to bolster these phases. Although it’s not exactly hurting the team, all of the personnel looked to be in place for a top-tier special teams unit and now would be a great time for a late-season resurgence, giving the Jaguars a huge boost for the playoff push.
- 5. They may have called off the dogs in Jacksonville, but ticket sales must improve before the spotlight ends up back on us. Combined with the Jaguars’ success on the field, the improvements in ticket sales and lack of blackouts have kept the “tarp jokes” at bay for now, along with some help from other more relevant storylines around the league. Tampa Bay has blacked out every home game this year, despite having a far better record than anticipated and vying for a wildcard spot. Stadium and relocation talks have heated up in Los Angeles and the Raiders, Chargers, and Vikings have been the teams most targeted for the move due to stadium issues and financial issues. But Jacksonville is not out of the woods, yet; we are still struggling to avoid blackouts in the final two games, despite being on track to take the division crown for only third time in team history and the first time since the inception of the AFC South in 2002. If there was ever a time to show that our city cares about this team and wants it to be in Jacksonville for a long time to come, that time is now.
– Andrew Hofheimer