KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Earlier this week, Jaguars coach Doug Pederson summed up how Jacksonville’s 2022 season should be defined.
He had been asked about his message to the players entering the divisional round.
“We’ve put ourselves in this position to be one of the four remaining AFC teams and you got a lot to play for,” Pederson explained Tuesday. “Whether we win, whether we lose, our season was a huge success from that standpoint.”
This Jags’ campaign has been a success. A massive success.
That doesn’t erase the hurt of Saturday’s game for the Jaguars, of course. They had favorable circumstances. Despite being heavy underdogs, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes injured his ankle late in the first quarter and missed the rest of the first half — and the Jaguars couldn’t take advantage.
It was 10-7 when Mahomes left the game after a field goal drive. But on the Chiefs’ ensuing possession, the Jaguars gave up a 98-yard touchdown drive to backup Chad Henne, aided by a roughing-the-passer call against defensive lineman Arden Key and giving up a 39-yard run to tailback Isiah Pacheco.
The Jaguars clawed back within three points early in the fourth quarter with a four-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne Jr., set up by Trevor Lawrence‘s 37-yard strike to Zay Jones and an 18-yard reverse by wide receiver Christian Kirk. But the Chiefs’ lead was back up to 10 after Mahomes — on his bum ankle — engineered a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to put Kansas City up 27-17 midway through the final period.
Then the Jaguars had consecutive turnovers. Receiver Jamal Agnew fumbled at the 3-yard line, then Lawrence was picked off by cornerback Jaylen Watson targeting Jones.
Jacksonville was still in it until the end, after Patterson’s 48-yard field goal, before a failed onside kick attempt with 24 seconds left.
“Some of the same ugly mistakes that showed up in this game were what showed up early in the season,” Pederson said.
But the loss aside, how could this Jaguars’ season be described as anything other than a success?
Through 2021, this was a franchise swimming in irrelevancy and dysfunction. A franchise that had four wins the previous two seasons combined. A franchise that finished last place in its division four straight years. A franchise that last made the playoffs in 2017. A franchise that had shown no progress despite repeatedly picking at or near the top of the draft.
Then in Year 1 with Pederson, they found something to build on.
“Nobody expected us, the Jaguars, to be in this football game — from the beginning of the season to today,” Pederson said. “I just told them how proud I was of them for how they hung together all season long, how they battled and fought through a ton of adversity. Just proud of the way they battled all season to get to this spot and really battle in this game to come down to an onside kick to potentially seeing what happens.”
Sure, we expected improvement in the Jaguars’ first season with the highly-regarded Pederson, a Super Bowl-winning coach. But not like this: nine regular season wins (a six-win improvement from last season), an AFC South title, and a playoff victory. Lawrence, who struggled as a rookie, emerged as a true franchise quarterback.
Most importantly? The culture has changed; the standard elevated. It starts with Pederson, who made transparency and building trust his top priorities upon arrival in Jacksonville. The foundation he laid made the Jaguars bulletproof to the adversity they faced in 2022. It helped them overcome a 2-6 start to the season, including a five-game losing streak in October. It helped them pull off five comeback victories since the start of November, including the third-largest comeback victory in NFL playoff history last week when they beat the Chargers in the wild card after trailing 27-0 in the second quarter.
“Practice was not a time we just messed around or got by,” Jones said of the culture. “We were trying to win in practice. There were scenarios in practice that were very, very difficult. … we’d have a routine for what we’re normally doing and then maybe Doug flips the script: ‘Now, it’s a compete period.’ Good on good. Third down. Who’s going to win this. Put us in a backed-up situation. Put us in a third and long. Put us in a stressful situation. Put the defense in a stressful situation. Crank the noise. Those are the type things that give you that feeling in your stomach like, ‘Even though, it’s practice. There’s something on the line.’ So you’re consistently practicing those habits. So when the game time comes, it’s not that you get into game mode. It’s that you’re already in it.”
Heading into 2023 and beyond, the Jaguars would be justified to believe they can be a top AFC contender for the foreseeable future — in the mix with the Chiefs, Bills and Bengals — with the right tweaks. They now have the coach. They have the quarterback. They have the foundation. And they’ll have Calvin Ridley, the former Falcons No. 1 receiver acquired in November who’ll be eligible to play in 2023, assuming there are no hiccups with his reinstatement process next month (he was suspended through at least 2022 for betting on NFL games).
“Our expectation is to be in these games every year,” Pederson said. “We want to be one of the four, five, six teams in the AFC each year.”
The 2022 Jaguars are a success, and defining them as anything but — despite Saturday’s loss to the Chiefs — would discredit where this team has taken the franchise.
“To be a part of turning around Jacksonville, even just seeing the city come back alive and the fans come back alive, it’s awesome,” tight end Evan Engram said. “It’s something that this group of guys can hang on for the rest of their careers, the rest of their lives. We’re literally just starting.”
“We’re not expecting mediocrity from this team no more,” linebacker Foye Oluokun said. “That’s for sure.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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