It’s no longer debatable whether the Jaguars are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, just a question of whether their destiny is as a wild-card participant or hosting their first postseason game since 1999 as the AFC South division champion.
Sunday’s improbable 20-17 overtime win against the Los Angeles Chargers virtually guaranteed it. That’s a game the Chargers should have won, and nobody will know it more than LA defensive coordinator and former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley when he reviews the tape. It was a gift the Jaguars likely wouldn’t have capitalized on any time in their recent history, but this is clearly a different team.
What transpired in the last 1:51 of regulation was undisputed evidence of the Jaguars’ transformation, from a franchise that used to find all sorts of ways to lose to one persevering enough to win. They took advantage of an opponent’s lack of awareness, specifically Chargers safety Tre Boston, and walked through a door that was barely cracked open.
First, things looked grim after Bortles’ first interception, a forced throw that was tipped by cornerback Casey Hayward into the waiting arms of Boston. But the Jaguars got new life when Malik Jackson forced a fumble recovered by Tashaun Gipson, an opportunity Bortles promptly threw away with a terrible decision to heave a high ball downfield and right to Boston. Everyone figured that second pick with under 1:30 remaining would doom the Jaguars.
But here’s where little things in a football game — often unnoticed until the anticipated outcome changes — tend to sabotage mediocre NFL teams and reward good ones. In this case, the Jaguars capitalized on Boston’s questionable instinct in a big moment.
As Boston cradled that interception in the middle of the field at the Chargers’ 10-yard-line, he didn’t even think about a return. Instead of cutting back left where there was plenty of running room, with cornerback Trevor Williams in position to ward off Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee, a full-of-himself Boston passed up an easy 15, 20 or maybe 30-yard return. He just stood there with arms spread wide in celebration before running out of bounds to his right.
No big deal because the game was over, right? After all, Lee had already hurt the Jaguars with a silly taunting penalty that cost them 15 yards on the play prior to the interception. The Chargers would just run out the clock, Boston likely thought.
What he didn’t take into account is the Jaguars still had three timeouts available. They weren’t ready to concede. They got the ball back with 58 seconds left at their own 48, instead of maybe the 25 and less time if Boston bothered to return the interception.
“It was a benefit for us from a field position standpoint, to get the ball down there [at the Chargers 10] to be able to stop them,” said head coach Doug Marrone.
You know the rest. A couple short pass completions to Allen Hurns and Jaydon Mickens, followed by a Joey Bosa roughing-the-passer penalty put the Jaguars in easy field-goal range for Josh Lambo to kick a 34-yard field goal with three seconds left in regulation.
Without Boston’s bonehead decision to run out of bounds instead of returning the pick to give the Chargers extra field position, the Jaguars probably don’t get into field-goal range to send the game to overtime. They wouldn’t be 6-3, tied with the Tennessee Titans for first place in the division, and in highly favorable position to secure at least an AFC wild-card berth.
But for this kind of season to happen, you have to seize those game-defining moments.
It’s amazing how one seemingly innocent, split-second decision by Boston in the heat of competition actually made a difference between the Jaguars winning and the Chargers losing. That’s why coaches preach things like staying focused and never giving up even when a game seems lost.
It’s doubtful the Jaguars of recent years would have recovered from the gut-punch of two Bortles interceptions, just 27 seconds apart, with so little time left on the clock. Heck, the Jaguars of six weeks ago failed to take advantage of the New York Jets’ silly lateral pass that turned into an 81-yard Myles Jack touchdown fumble return to let them back in that game (Jets won 23-20 in OT).
Things are different now. The Jaguars’ defense is so impressive, it allows them to overcome Bortles’ brain cramps and a couple dumb dead-ball penalties to steal a victory.
As this 2017 run to the playoffs continue, the Jaguars just need to make sure they stay hungry enough and disciplined enough to never be on the wrong end of a giveaway.
This is still a young team on the rise, but as the Chargers painfully discovered, these new Jaguars are ready to take advantage of any opening you give them.
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