THE FIFTH DOWN; Magical Jaguar Mystery

Chase Stuart contributes to the Pro-Football-Reference.com blog and to Footballguys.com.

Three months ago, the sports media had three things to say about the Jaguars:

1) Can you believe Jacksonville drafted Tyson Alualu instead of Tim Tebow?

2) When is this team moving to Los Angeles?

3) How is Jack Del Rio still the coach?

Jacksonville might have been the blandest team in the league, with possibly the most apathetic fan base. But with an 8-5 record in mid-December, none of the above matters. With a win on Sunday against the Colts, Jacksonville would wrap up its first division title since Tom Coughlin’s squad won its third straight A.F.C. Central crown in 1999. With the Jaguars all but ignored in the national media, you might be wondering how the Jags are winning games this year.

There’s only one answer to that: unconventionally. Jacksonville’s pass defense is miserable, fluctuating weekly with the Texans for last place in net yards per attempt allowed and adjusted net yards per attempted allowed. The Jaguars are tied with the Broncos and the Vikings for the honor of worst turnover margin, unthinkable for an offense that leads the league in rushing attempts. And Jacksonville has been outscored by 36 points, after being blown out by three touchdowns or more in four games this season. If the Jaguars win one more game, they’ll become just the fourth team since 1940 to have a winning record despite four losses of 21 points or more.

Despite a terrible pass defense, its struggles to hold on to the ball or to take it away from its opponents, and the decision to seemingly skip every third game, Jacksonville can clinch the division with two weeks to play. How? The obvious person to look to is Maurice Jones-Drew, the running back who ranks second in the league in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. But Arian Foster leads the league in those two categories, and the Texans’ pass defense is just as bad, so there’s more to the story.

David Garrard is having a solid but unspectacular season. His best attribute this season has been the ability to limit all his bad plays to games the Jaguars are going to lose anyway. In losses to the Giants, Eagles and Chargers, Garrard has thrown six interceptions with one touchdown while averaging just 5.0 yards per attempt. He was injured early in the Jaguars’ flop against the Titans and didn’t play when the team allowed 42 points to the Chiefs. Meanwhile, in seven of Jacksonville’s victories, Garrard has thrown for 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions while averaging 9.0 yards per attempt.

For the most part, Jacksonville has had the benefit of good fortune and good timing. In Week 1, Brandon Lloyd’s second foot grazed the end zone sideline, negating a potential game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Three weeks later, the Jaguars defeated the Colts thanks to Josh Scobee’s 59-yard field goal as time expired. In Week 10, it was Glover Quin and Mike Thomas teaming up to convert a desperation pass to beat the Texans. The next week they turned the ball over six times, but Maurice Jones-Drew picked the right time to rev up his ESPY campaign. With just over two minutes left, Jones-Drew took a screen pass 75 yards to the Cleveland 1-yard line, weaving across the field and breaking four tackles in one of the highlights of the year.

Their overall numbers are underwhelming. But so far, the Jaguars have been able to consolidate the bad plays to a few games, while making their biggest plays when it counts most. Both Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings rushed for over 100 yards against the Raiders on Sunday, but the team still needed Deji Karim’s 65-yard kickoff return in the final minutes to put away the Raiders. The unquestioned strength of the team is red hot; the Jags have topped the 200-yard rushing mark in each of the last three weeks. Awaiting them on Sunday: the 29th-ranked rushing defense in Indianapolis.

If Jacksonville makes the playoffs, what can we expect? Since 1990, only three teams have made the playoffs despite being outscored by 25 points or more. The 2004 Rams, playing in one of the league’s all-time terrible divisions, went 8-8 and earned a wild card berth. The Rams swept the Seahawks in the regular season and then defeated them in the first round of the playoffs, before getting steamrolled by Mike Vick and the Falcons in the second round. The 1998 Arizona Cardinals — perhaps the worst playoff team ever — played the easiest schedule in the league and were outscored by 53 points. But then the Cards managed to go into Dallas, where they had lost by 28 points in Week 1, and upset the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs. They lost, 41-21, to the Vikings the next week. The ’94 Bears were outscored by 36 points but went into Minnesota and won in the first round of the playoffs. They were obliterated by the 49ers the following week, 44-15. Like those three teams, the Jaguars have been inconsistently good, and are prone to surprise wins and blowout losses in the regular season. There’s nothing to say that that trend won’t continue in the playoffs.

Going up? Going Down

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