JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars are one game away from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history one season after being one of the worst teams in the NFL.
The Jaguars won just three games in 2016 and are now sitting on four times as many victories (12-6) heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots (14-3) in Gillette Stadium. That makes them just the second team in NFL history to play in a conference championship game the year after winning three or fewer games (2006 New Orleans Saints), per Elias Sports Bureau research.
How did they get here? Glad you asked. ...
The culture change
The biggest change from the past several seasons has been the culture -- and that flipped the moment owner Shad Khan hired Tom Coughlin to be the team's executive vice president of football operations and removed the interim tag from coach Doug Marrone. Everything immediately became about winning.
That sounds like a no-brainer, but the previous regime under coach Gus Bradley was all about the process: If players work to become their best and everyone is at their best at the same time then victories will come. That made no sense to Coughlin or Marrone.
Discipline and accountability was the first priority. Marrone removed the pingpong table that had been in the center of the locker room since Jack Del Rio's tenure and also rearranged the lockers, spreading players throughout the locker room instead of separating them by position group.
Coughlin and Marrone also put together a physically and mentally exhausting training camp designed to push and test the players' commitment, drive and ability to withstand adversity. The days were long, beginning with early-morning meetings, and the practices were longer than they have been in previous seasons.
The players, most of whom hadn't won more than five games in a season, embraced the change.
“I think the importance placed on winning [now] is something that was not necessarily as high of a priority in the past,” quarterback Blake Bortles said. “I think since the time Doug and Coughlin got here, that is all everything has been about. How can we win as much as possible and as consistently as possible? If we are doing anything that is not helping us win, then why are we doing it?
“I think the discipline and the structure that has kind of been implemented here has really helped out with the locker room and to keep this whole thing rolling in the right direction.”
The 2016 draft
General manager Dave Caldwell hit three home runs in his fourth draft with cornerback Jalen Ramsey (fifth overall), linebacker Myles Jack (36th) and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. That's a first-team All-Pro, a starting linebacker and one of the NFL's best young pass-rushers. Not a bad haul.
Ramsey has already established himself as one of the best cover corners in the NFL and has 31 pass breakups and six interceptions in his first two seasons. He intercepted Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman to seal the Jaguars' 10-3 victory in the wild-card game.
Jack didn't play much as a rookie because the Jaguars had him practicing at all three linebacker spots, but he started all 16 games this season and made 90 tackles. He also returned a fumble 81 yards for a touchdown and had an interception to set up a touchdown against Pittsburgh last Sunday. Jack and Telvin Smith give the Jaguars two of the faster linebackers in the NFL with the ability to run with backs and tight ends.
Ngakoue has 12.0 sacks this season and has more sacks (20.0) than all but one other player drafted in 2016 (Joey Bosa has 23) and he's tied for the NFL lead with Atlanta's Vic Beasley with seven strip sacks since the 2016 season began.
Ramsey, Jack and Ngakoue are key pieces of a defense that finished first in pass defense and second in total defense, scoring defense, sacks and turnovers.
The 2017 additions
Other key pieces are defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church, who comprise the greatest free-agency class in franchise history. They're just three of the six major additions this season to have made a huge impact.
Campbell finished tied for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks and was named a Pro Bowler, a first-team All-Pro and the Defensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association. His leadership has been invaluable, too, and Marrone and defensive coordinator Todd Wash have lauded him for his impact on younger players such as Ngakoue and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.
Bouye led the Jaguars with six interceptions and 18 pass breakups and pairs with Ramsey to give the Jaguars the top cornerback duo in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Bouye allowed an NFL-low 31.6 passer rating when quarterbacks targeted receivers he was covering.
Church solidified the strong safety spot that was so inconsistent the past four seasons under Johnathan Cyprien. He's a better tackler (72, third on the team) than Cyprien and added four interceptions. His ability to play in the box and as a single-high safety has given the Jaguars much more flexibility in coverage. Wash has been able to be more creative with the two safeties than last season, when he pretty much stuck with Tashaun Gipson in single-high coverage.
The Jaguars wanted to be a more physical offense with an emphasis on the run so they drafted running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall. He became just the second rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards (1,040) and the 228-pounder certainly upped the physicality on the offense. He just had 109 yards and three touchdowns in the Jaguars' divisional-round victory over Pittsburgh.
Rookie Cam Robinson, the 34th overall pick, started 15 games and solidified the left tackle spot. He's been better than Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 who was eventually moved to guard before signing with Seattle last March.
The Jaguars added kicker Josh Lambo on Oct. 17 after cutting the inconsistent Jason Myers, who missed three 50-plus-yard field goal attempts. Lambo has made 21 of 22 field goal attempts, including a 45-yarder late in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the difference in a 45-42 victory over the Steelers.
Bortles made a remarkable turnaround from August to January and has played a significant part in the team's resurgence.
After Coughlin and Marrone stressed throughout the offseason that Bortles needed to cut down on his turnovers (he had an NFL-high 63 from 2014 to '16), Bortles had a five-interception practice early in training camp and then got benched after the team's second preseason game.
He won the job back a week later and went on to have the best season of his career, completing more than 60 percent of his passes for the first time and throwing for a career-low 13 interceptions. He threw 21 touchdown passes and was sacked a career-low 24 times.
He had a three-week stretch in December when he was the NFL's top-rated passer after throwing for 903 yards and seven TDs with no interceptions.
He hasn't been spectacular in the postseason -- he actually had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in the win over Buffalo -- but he hasn't turned the ball over and has delivered in key moments. He threw a fourth-down touchdown pass against the Bills and led back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Has what he's done this season cemented him as the Jaguars' franchise quarterback? No, but it certainly has been one of the reasons the Jaguars are one of only four teams remaining.
“He understands, as well as we all do, that you are going to be judged on your performance, and we're going to have to go out there and play well,” Marrone said. “When we play well, there's going to be good things [said about him], and if we don't play well, then there's going to be bad things [said about him]. That's just the nature of the sport that we play.”
Beating Pittsburgh in Heinz Field on Sunday sent the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game, but it was the team's first victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh in October that really started things rolling.
The Jaguars intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times and Fournette ran for a career-high 181 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown on his 28th and final carry of the game in a 30-9 victory. It was certainly a statement game for the Jaguars, who were coming off an overtime loss to the New York Jets.
“I think we did a great job of opening their eyes, letting them [the national audience] know you can't look at any team any [specific] way,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We're the new Jags. We're a new team.”
The Jaguars lost the following week at home to the Los Angeles Rams, but then won seven of their next eight games to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and win their first division title since 1999.