By Adesina O. Koiki
CLEVELAND – How does this sound: the first-place Jacksonville Jaguars.
The stingy defense of Jacksonville made sure the above became a fact on Sunday, forcing five turnovers and scoring the game-clinching touchdown on that side of the ball late in the fourth quarter as the Jaguars defeated the Cleveland Browns 19-7 at a windy (and sometimes snowy) FirstEnergy Stadium. Jacksonville’s win, coupled with the Tennessee Titans’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday, moved the Jaguars to sole possession of first place in the AFC South with a 7-3 record.
It is the first time the Jaguars have been in first place in a division after 10 games of a season since 1999, back when they were in the now-defunct AFC Central.
Along with forcing five turnovers, Jacksonville sacked Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer five times in the contest, with Yannick Ngakoue’s sack and strip of Kizer leading to a fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown by linebacker Telvin Smith with 1:14 left in the game to seal the victory.
“One of the things coach [Doug] Marrone says is that we used to be the hunter,” said Jaguars safety and former Cleveland Browns Tashaun Gipson. “Teams didn’t necessarily give us that respect. We want to go out there and earn it, and now there are teams that say we want to knock Jacksonville off the high horse, per se.”
“Five wins could be a fluke,” continued Gipson. “Six, seven. Once you start getting this deep in a season, when meaningful games are being played and we’re winning these games no matter the opponent and no matter what’s going on, I think teams are taking notice.”
Jacksonville scored the first points of the game, set up after Smith intercepted a Kizer pass over the middle and returned it 26 yards to the Cleveland 33-yard line. Four plays later, quarterback Blake Bortles lobbed a pass down the right sideline which was caught for a 10-yard touchdown by tight end Marcedes Lewis, giving the Jaguars a 7-0 lead with 6:54 remaining in the first quarter.
The Jaguars extended the lead early in the second quarter on a 38-yard field goal by Josh Lambo, but the Browns responded on the next drive by scoring what turned out to be their only points of the game. Kizer completed two consecutive passes to wide receiver Corey Coleman for a combined 28 yards to start the drive. After a 10-yard run by Kizer on a 3rd-and-1, he found running back Duke Johnson Jr. over the middle on a pass that went for a 27-yard touchdown, cutting the Jaguars’ lead to 10-7.
Though the Jaguars only scored one touchdown on offense, they were able to possess the ball for almost 37 minutes while utilizing their punishing run game to eat up the clock. Running back Leonard Fournette, the New Orleans native who admitted that he was not going to be a fan of playing in the cold, ran for 111 yards on 28 carries, his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
Both teams struggled holding onto the ball in the wintry conditions, and each team fumbled the ball five times. However, Jacksonville only lost one of their its fumbles while recovering three of Cleveland’s. The only turnover the Jaguars committed came in the third quarter, when Bortles lost the football while being sacked in Cleveland territory by linebacker Christian Kirksey. Defensive end Myles Garrett recovered the ball to end the Jaguars’ drive.
With Jacksonville holding on to a 13-7 lead late the fourth quarter, Cleveland was able to march into Jaguars territory, with a Kizer pass to Johnson for 21 yards, moving the ball to the Jacksonville 40-yard line right before the two-minute warning. Three plays later, Kizer was sacked by the combination of Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, losing the ball in the process. Kizer was initially ruled down by contact, but after a review, Kizer was deemed to have fumbled before hitting the turf and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. came away with a clear recovery of that fumble, reversing the call on the field and giving the ball to Jacksonville.
Cleveland had one last chance with the ball after a Jacksonville punt, but it ended with the Smith touchdown on the sack and strip of Kizer by Ngakoue. The Browns now are 0-10 as an 0-16 season becomes more of a possibility.
The Jaguars stay on the road for their next game, heading to the desert to play the Arizona Cardinals starting at 4:25pm EST.