This time last year, not a single person could have predicted the Cincinnati Bengals would win the AFC. For one thing, there were too many other good teams in their own division, let alone the rest of the conference. Coming off of a four-win season, the Bengals looked poised to simply do what they could to take a step forward. A Super Bowl appearance seemed out of the question. That’s the thing about sports, though. The results are often unpredictable. That’s why this year’s iteration of the Jacksonville Jaguars, after coming off of back-to-back years with the first overall pick, still have a chance to be the 2022 season version of last year’s Bengals.
For the Bengals to win the AFC North, there were several things that had to go right for them. Chief among them was a strong second year from their young quarterback, Joe Burrow. Another factor was getting strong contributions from roster newcomers—both rookies and free agents. Finally, as can happen in any given year, they had a bit of injury luck. Not only did they avoid injuries to their major contributors, but their divisional rivals suffered some brutal injuries that no doubt had a big impact on how their seasons played out.
After winning their division, their postseason run was a classic case of ‘it’s the playoffs, anything can happen’. The Bengals managed to avoid one Super Bowl favorite in the Bills and took down another—the Chiefs—en route to their third conference title in franchise history. So for Jacksonville, everything comes down to winning their division and making the playoffs.
The biggest factor for a Jaguars push to the playoffs, by far, is a leap forward from quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Given the amount of hype he had as a prospect before he even took a snap in the NFL, Lawrence’s rookie year was disappointing. He tied for the league lead in interceptions, wasn’t particularly accurate and struggled with decision making.
Lawrence clearly has all the talent necessary to be a strong NFL quarterback, so a better second season is expected. Not only will he have one year of NFL experience under his belt, but he appears to be set up much better for success in 2022.
There’s so much that’s different within the Jaguars organization, with the biggest difference being at head coach. Urban Meyer was a failure on the field and an utterly embarrassing distraction off of it. His replacement, Doug Pederson, led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory just five years ago and has a strong track record of getting the most out of his quarterbacks.
Most of the other big differences are more apparent on the roster. Guard Brandon Scherff brings a very talented veteran presence to an offensive line that struggled some last year. Wide receivers Zay Jones and Christian Kirk along with tight end Evan Engram present more—and younger—targets to throw to. The draft also brought in tons of talent on the defensive side from edge rusher Travon Walker to linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma.
Obviously, we’ll have to wait for the regular season to begin to see how much success the Jaguars will really have, but there are already some key similarities between this year’s Jags and last year’s Bengals. They’ve got the second-year quarterback—and former No. 1 overall pick—ready to take a big step forward, and they signed some key free agents and rookies that could make a big impact right away. Still, Jacksonville probably needs some of the same luck the Bengals had last year to contend for the AFC South title.
With everyone healthy, the Titans and Colts are both better teams on paper than the Jaguars. But “on paper” are key words there, and some things could get shaken up once games start this year. Tennessee quarterback Tannehill struggled in the playoffs last year, and running back Derrick Henry didn’t immediately look like himself in his return from injury. Meanwhile, the Colts have historically struggled in Jacksonville, are relying heavily on rookies to pick up the slack in the passing game and now have an aging Matt Ryan starting under center.
Given the improvements the Jaguars made to their roster this offseason and a potential breakout from Lawrence this season, they might not need all that much luck. If a few things swing in the wrong direction for their divisional rivals and in the right direction for Jacksonville, winning the AFC South shouldn’t be out of reach. If they do make the playoffs, anything could happen. After all, the Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship game just as recently as their new head coach’s Super Bowl victory.
Regardless of a playoff appearance, there’s plenty to be excited about in Duval County this season. The newcomers to the roster, a new coaching regime and Lawrence’s seemingly impending breakout altogether bring the potential for a much better season.
- Jul 27, 2023
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