JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
The Jaguars' snapping the fourth-longest current postseason drought was the main news coming out of Sunday’s domination of Houston at EverBank Field, but the 45-7 victory is also proof that the Jaguars have the look of a team that’s capable of doing some damage in the playoffs.
In other words, don’t just assume the AFC Championship Game will be a rematch of Sunday afternoon’s Pittsburgh-New England game at Heinz Field. The Jaguars (10-4), after a decade of futility, are a very real threat to the two franchises that have played in 10 of the past 16 Super Bowls.
It’s hard to believe considering how bad the Jaguars have been since they last made the playoffs after the 2007 season, when they beat the Steelers and lost to the Patriots. Since then they’ve won a total of 42 games and won more than five games in a season just twice -- until this season.
Now they have their sixth victory by at least 20 points, which is the most by any team in the past two seasons, and the No. 2 seed in the AFC -- and accompanying first-round bye -- is very much in play.
"This is where we’re supposed to be," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We wish we could cut out a couple of them L's that we took but we’re going to move forward and continue to be a dominant football team."
The two biggest reasons the Jaguars can challenge the Patriots and Steelers? Quarterback Blake Bortles' stellar play this month and a defense that continues to perform at a historic level.
The Jaguars have been the NFL’s top rushing team for much of the season (149.9 yards per game entering Sunday), though they ran for only 140 yards against the Texans without Leonard Fournette (quad injury). What they’ve needed is a threat in the passing game to get defenses out of eight-man-plus boxes.
Bortles has given them that in the past three games, even though the Jaguars have been dealing with injuries and inexperience at receiver. Bortles has multiple touchdown passes and hasn’t thrown an interception in victories over Indianapolis, Seattle and Houston, and per ESPN Stats & Information that’s the first time he has done that in three consecutive games.
Bortles completed 21 of 29 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns against Houston for a career-high 143.8 passer rating. He has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 903 yards and seven touchdowns in his past three games.
He has done that without his No. 1 and No. 3 receivers (Allen Robinson was lost for the season with a torn left ACL and Allen Hurns has missed the past five games with an ankle injury). No. 2 receiver Marqise Lee left Sunday’s game in the first quarter with a right ankle injury and did not return.
That left rookie fourth-round draft pick Dede Westbrook and undrafted rookies Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens as the top three receivers. They combined to catch 13 passes for 268 yards and all three touchdowns against the Texans.
The Jaguars’ defense absolutely dominated the Texans. They sacked T.J. Yates four times, intercepted him once, and held him to 128 yards passing. DeAndre Hopkins caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, but he was the only Texans player to have any kind of success offensively.
Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jaguars’ defense is still on pace to become the first defense since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL in scoring defense, sacks and takeaways. Not even the 1985 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens, generally regarded as the two best defenses of the past three decades, were able to do that.
"We want to be able to start playing good football at the end of the year," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "Good teams with good defenses put their teams in the playoffs and into championships. I know firsthand about that and I think we’re starting to come on at the right time."
Bortles’ recent surge and the defense’s continued dominance makes the Jaguars a dangerous team in the playoffs. They won in Pittsburgh earlier this season by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times and they’re the only team in the AFC that can match up against the Patriots’ receivers. Plus, the teams that have given the Patriots the most trouble are the ones that can apply relentless pressure on Tom Brady.
The playoffs are in hand and the Jaguars are playing like a team that can make a deep run -- possibly into February.
"I’m telling you, when we're firing on all cylinders there’s no team in the NFL that can mess with us," Smith said. "There's no team in the game of football that can play with us."