By Jeff Moeller
Thursday night’s game in the Meadowlands was billed as the showdown between the top two quarterbacks in the 2021 draft.
The Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence showed up, the Jets’ Zach Wilson didn’t. Neither did the Jets on a night of steady, driving rain. Still, the Jaguars looked like a team that already has clinched a postseason berth, a task they can achieve in two weeks.
Last week, I wrote about how fate can be a factor for the Jags down the stretch, and it certainly appears possible.
Jacksonville had their way with the New Yorkers most of the night until practice squad quarterback Chris Streveler provided some late spark in the second half, but the Jets couldn’t find the end zone in their 19-3 defeat.
It was so bad that Streveler was their leading rusher with 54 yards.
In a must-game situation for both teams, it only proved that both teams are currently heading in opposite directions. The Jags have their franchise quarterback, and again, the Jets don’t.
More importantly, the Jaguars may have stepped up to the next level. On the surface, a 7-8 record is a reflection of mediocrity, but they have reached the next plateau.
Their performance in New York was resemblant of a contender, as they closed out a game, they could have easily lost even in the second half.
Don’t forget it wasn’t that long ago that this team was in the midst of a 20-game losing streak that was finally broken last October in a 23-20 victory over Miami in London. Since then, the Jaguars are 9-17, but the nine remaining losses from last year can be attributed to the disarray under former head coach Urban Meyer.
The Meyer stint now seems so long ago with the Jags’ realignment and maturation under Lawrence and head coach Doug Pederson.
That’s how it apparently will be for quite some time. They are the new cornerstone foundation.
Lawrence looked like a seasoned veteran against the Jets, throwing for 229 yards and running for 51.
“For the most part, I thought he did a nice job of controlling and managing what we asked him to do,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said of Lawrence. “The weather was obviously a challenge with the wind and the rain, but I thought he played tough again, played physical. It was really good to see that out of our quarterback.”
The Jags are climbing high on a three-game winning streak heading toward a rematch with Houston – a game that was a pure clunker – a week from Sunday in another must-win spot, and then can win the AFC South title with a win over Tennessee at TIAA Field.
They will amass the most wins since the 2017 10-6 team that caught some laste-season momentum and ended up in the AFC Championship game. Ironically, it was the same season they last won three straight games.
Talk about fate. Tennessee plays Houston – which has been playing teams tough until the end recently – and then have a Thursday night showdown with Dallas, which will still need the game if they beat Philadelphia Saturday.
Tennessee lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans are reeling. But head coach Mike Vrabel is one of the better ones around, and he can find a way.
Aside from Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne has hit the 1,000-yard plateau for the season, and the receiving trio of Evan Engram, Christian Kirk, and Zay Jones all have 60-plus catches and all three easily could surpass the 1,000-yard mark in receiving this season.
The Jags’ defense – notably the secondary – has paid better in recent weeks, and they have tightened some loose spots.
Jacksonville provided a picture of a team that has all three phases of its game intact. They have shown a better sense of reliability and cohesion, as they earlier endured a five-game losing streak.
This is a different Jaguars team that can suddenly see a division title within their grasp. Winning the AFC South can justify their stance.
(Columnist Jeff Moeller covers the NFL and other sports for Florida Sports Wire and SportsDay.)