To fans of an NFL franchise, two decades can seem like forever when waiting in anticipation for a December home game with playoff implications, and against an opponent with a championship pedigree.
Not since December 7, 1997 — when the Jaguars were battling the Pittsburgh Steelers down to the final week for supremacy in the old AFC Central, but lost 26-20 to the defending AFC champion New England Patriots at then Alltel Stadium – has the city of Jacksonville seemed this stoked for a regular-season home matchup.
Other playoff seasons like 1998, ’99, 2005 and ’07 had plenty of excitement, but there was never the heavyweight-type feel as with Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks because the Jaguars never hosted a big-time opponent in the homestretch of those seasons. When they clinched their last division title at Alltel in the final week of the ’99 season, it was against the bottom-feeder Cincinnati Bengals.
While Seattle is an NFC foe with whom the Jaguars have no legitimate rivalry (only six previous meetings), this matchup has evolved into sort of a perfect storm. It goes well beyond the 8-4 Seahawks being in a dogfight with the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West crown, just like the 8-4 Jaguars are seemingly headed for an AFC South-deciding showdown on New Year’s Eve in Nashville against the division co-leader Tennessee Titans.
No, this game is about Seattle’s proud, beaten-up “Legion of Boom” defense trying to affirm its stalwart reputation against possibly the NFL’s next great defense in “Sacksonville.” It’s about an ascending unit molded by defensive coordinator Todd Wash in the Seahawks’ image — led by Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye – trying to establish its own identity by neutralizing Seattle quarterback and MVP candidate Russell Wilson.
“This one’s big for a lot of reasons,” said Episcopal High coach and former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell (1995-2003). “You got to be out in the community. I do a [Jaguars] TV show on Monday nights and there’s a real buzz. It just feels like people are absolutely thrilled and excited about what this team can do. Nobody’s bad-mouthing the Jaguars, the coach or the quarterback. There’s a feeling out there that the Jaguars are back.
“I think the Pittsburgh game [30-9 win on October 8] got people’s attention. Since then, we haven’t gone up against an opponent that we’re not supposed to beat. To have the Seahawks come to our place and if we beat them, that’s a sure sign this team is for real. This is a defining moment, a true test of where our team is.”
Predictably, head coach Doug Marrone wants no part of making the Seattle game bigger than any other game, but he has to know his defense, especially the talkative Ramsey, will approach this matchup as if it’s a challenge to the Jaguars’ manhood.
With the NFL flexing this game to a national TV slot at 4:25 p.m., and the Seahawks coming off an impressive 24-10 takedown of NFC title contender Philadelphia Eagles by riding Wilson’s coattails (246 yards passing, 3 TDs), it’s setting up as the most anticipated game this city has felt in literally a generation. The league is basically saying to the Jaguars: “You’ve been pleading for national respect, so here’s your chance to get some.”
While Jaguars’ fans and some players might allow themselves to enjoy this week’s hype, don’t expect Marrone to get caught up in it.
“It’s something I talk about each week as far as our focus and let’s make sure we’re taking care of today,” said Marrone. “Don’t let what is said on the outside get you up or down. It’d be out of the norm if I mentioned, ‘Hey, now we’re playing an important game.’
“We’re getting ready for the fourth quarter [of the season] and we have an opportunity to win a football game. Let’s not try to look too far ahead. I talk to them like that constantly throughout the season. If you do change, I think it can cause problems.”
Well, with all due respect to Marrone, the hell with dialing down the hype. After a decade of Decembers when all this team had to look forward to was free agency and the NFL draft, why not get a little carried away?
By all means, this city should be caught up in the Jaguars’ No. 1-ranked defense trying to beat one of the league’s clutch quarterbacks into submission. They intercepted the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger a career-record five times, so who can’t get excited about the prospect of the D-line making Wilson’s life miserable or Ramsey exchanging trash talk with Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin?
Jacksonville has waited a long time to feel the NFL spotlight on the Jaguars again. Marrone says front-office czar Tom Coughlin, who served as the head coach during the glory years of the late 1990s, gave this team a glimpse of what that winning environment was like during the summer.
“We had coach [Coughlin] address the team in training camp on it,” said Marrone. “He told them all the things that you mentioned, how the fans were, what the town was like, how exciting things were. He was just trying to paint a picture of what it could be like [in 2017] and what it was like when the team was winning.”
The Jaguars don’t have to wonder anymore. They’re winning now. With Russell Wilson and the Seahawks coming to EverBank Field, even if that Legion of Boom defense is missing big pieces like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, this is an opportunity to capture a city’s heart and gain some national attention.
If this is truly the Jaguars’ time, then show the Seahawks there’s a new bully on the NFL block.
Gene.email@example.com: (904) 359-4540