By Adesina O. Koiki
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before the Jacksonville Jaguars took the field on Sunday, head coach Doug Marrone was worried, more so than at any other time before a game this season. He noticed that the locker room was eerily quiet right before game time, something that he had not observed before a game in 2017.
As it played out, the silence before the game was a quiet confidence from his team, and the Jaguars responded on the field with their most comprehensive performance of the season in a landmark victory. Blake Bortles continued his stellar play under center by throwing three more touchdown passes as Jacksonville routed the Houston Texans 45-7 at EverBank Field, securing the Jaguars’ first playoff berth in a decade.
The win, coupled with a Tennessee loss later in the day at San Francisco, also means the Jaguars will win the AFC South with a victory in either of their final two games.
So why all the nerves before the game, Doug?
“Prior to the game, I was a little bit nervous because it was probably the quietest our locker room has been before the game,” Marrone said. “I was thinking to myself that this team has always been focused and loose. This is me thinking to myself, I hope they guys aren’t getting tight now. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. Obviously, they were focused, and that was a good sign.”
Focused was an understatement, as the Jaguars defense forced the hapless Texans offense into six consecutive punts and then an interception on Houston’s first seven drives, giving the Jacksonville offense an opportunity to put the game away early.
Bortles and the offense obliged, even without the services of running back Leonard Fournette, who missed the game with a quad injury. Jacksonville scored three touchdowns in the first 20 minutes of the game to open up an early 21-0 lead, with two of those touchdowns coming on passes to wide receiver Jaydon Mickens, who saw an expanded role today after fellow receiver Marqise Lee hurt his ankle early on in the game.
In his last three games combined, Bortles has completed 71 percent of his passes, throwing seven touchdowns without an interception. For the first time in his professional career, the fourth-year quarterback from UCF has gone three consecutive games in a season without throwing an interception.
“Honestly, I feel like I’ve been playing the same the whole time,” Bortles said after the game. “Obviously, the results and numbers are a little bit better but I feel just as comfortable and as confident as I did six or seven weeks ago. I think guys are starting to make unbelievable plays.”
Wide receiver Keelan Cole is one of those guys on offense who has stepped up, becoming an integral part of the passing game after established receivers Allen Robinson (out for the season with a torn ACL) and Allen Hurns (ankle) went down with injuries. Cole exploded for a career-high 186 receiving yards on seven catches on Sunday, including hauling in a 9-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left in the first half to give the Jaguars a 31-0 lead going into halftime.
The 31-point lead at intermission is the largest-ever halftime lead in franchise history, assuring that whatever nerves Marrone had when last appearing in the locker room with his players was a distant memory.
Marrone, usually one to utter coaching clichés in his interactions with the media, acknowledged how big of an achievement this was for his team, even with two games remaining in the regular season.
“I think I’d be a fool if I stood up here and said I didn’t recognize [clinching a playoff spot],” Marrone said. “Obviously, it’s an accomplishment. When we had gotten together early, I really thought this team could be special, if we put the work in. That’s the one thing I kept telling them.
“So to be where we are right now, I think the people that were in that huddle when I was talking with the team are the people that truly believed that this is where we would be.”
It seemed like it was only those within the Jaguars organization who believed that this turnaround was possible; Jacksonville had gone an NFL-worst 22-74 over the previous six seasons, and any talk of a turnaround in 2017 would have been considered fantasy instead of reality given those returns.
“The reality is a lot better,” said Jaguars owner Shad Khan said outside of the Jaguars locker room. “It’s been a challenge. But it’s so wonderful now to see a young team come through and with the veteran leadership, it gives us sustainability and hope for the future.”
Jacksonville’s immediate future sees the team flying to the Bay Area to take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Dec. 24 at 4:05 EST, with a win clinching the AFC South division title.