The Sunday schedule of Week Eight began in venerable Wembly Stadium in London – the twenty-fourth NFL game hosted there. This time, though, the venue would seem to be the only selling point for this matchup between the 2-5 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2-5 Denver Broncos.
It would turn out to be another struggling outing for second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who finished his afternoon completing just 18 of his 31 passes for only 133 yards, his touchdown pass more than off-set by his two interceptions. After a struggle as a rookie quarterback in the circus atmosphere of the 2021 Jaguars, Trevor started every game of the 3-14 season, tossing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions, and finishing with a 71.9 passer rating.
The 2022 version of the team got a clean slate with the arrival of new head coach Doug Pederson, and the improvement seemed to start immediately. After losing a tight game in Washington, the young Jags ripped through Indianapolis (24-0) and the Chargers (38-10) to catch some early attention.
Things quickly fell apart from there, though, for both Lawrence and the team. Over the next five games (culminating with the game against Denver), Trevor looked like a re-cycled version of his rookie season. He completed just 57.8% of his passes (96 of 166) and averaged just 213.6 yards per game. He threw 4 touchdowns in the five games, while tossing 5 interceptions. His passer rating regressed to 72.6.
As far as the team, the first four of those games ended in losses – all by one score. The Week Eight game looked like it might turn out differently. About halfway through the final quarter, a Logan Cooke punt pinned Denver back on its own 7-yard line. A quick three-and-out gave the Jags (trailing 14-10 at that point) the ball (after the punt) on the Bronco 47. Six plays later – including a 25-yard pass from Lawrence to Christian Kirk – Jacksonville was in the end zone, and in front 17-14.
But 3:54 was too much time left. It took Denver quarterback Russell Wilson just seven plays to navigate the 80 yards to put the Broncos back on top, 21-17. With the ball back in his court, Trevor started on his own 25-yard line with 1:43 left and holding two timeouts. The drama was short-lived. Trevor tossed his second interception on the first play of the drive, and Denver drained the clock from there.
Their fifth consecutive loss dropped the Jaguars’ record to 2-6. They were third in their division, and 3.5 games behind the 5-2 Tennessee Titans. At about the halfway point of the season, any suggestion that Jacksonville would be playing in the playoffs this year would have been greeted by titters.
A few hours after the Jaguars lost in London, the lowly Detroit Lions forged a surprising 27-17 halftime lead over the 4-3 Miami Dolphins. But the second half would prove cruel to the struggling Lions. They would net a negative 1 yard of offense during the third quarter as Miami pushed ahead 31-27. Their only fourth quarter possession would find them driving 53 yards in 10 plays, the drive wheezing out on the Miami 35 on a fourth-and-one incompletion from quarterback Jared Goff.
After dragging through a 3-13-1 season in the first year under head coach Dan Campbell, the Lions had now fallen to 1-6 in year two. The Vikings had already taken control of the division (they were 6-1 at that point), and the final playoff spot was currently held by the 4-4 San Francisco 49ers. Like the Jaguars, the Lions were left for dead at the halfway point of the 2022 season. Nothing to see here, just more endless rebuilding to be endured by two long-suffering franchises and their frustrated fan bases.
These people apparently forgot that cats have nine lives.
Last Sunday, the Lions survived the New York Jets, 20-17 (gamebook) (summary) when Greg Zuerlein’s last second, 58-yard field goal attempt sliced wide left. The victory was Detroit’s sixth over its last seven games, squaring their mark at 7-7.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars were pulling out a 40-34 overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys (gamebook) (summary) on a 52-yard interception return by Rayshawn Jenkins. Since their loss in London, the Jags have gone 4-2 (one of those losses to Detroit), and, at 6-8, have pushed themselves into the midst of the playoff conversation.
For most of the afternoon, it seemed that the Jaguars had met their match. With 4:07 left in the third quarter, Jacksonville looked up to find themselves trailing 27-10. And then the offense went off.
Beginning with a 59-yard touchdown pass to Zay Jones on that next play, the Jags racked up 173 yards on their next 13 plays, scoring touchdowns on three successive possessions to take a momentary 31-27 lead. Trailing 21-7 at the half, Jacksonville forced overtime by outscoring Dallas 27-13 in the second half – a thirty-minute span that saw them convert 6 of 7 third downs and explode for 339 total yards. Lawrence completed 17 of 25 for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns (against one interception) in the second half alone (a 118.8 passer rating) to ignite the charge. That’s the thing about this Jacksonville team. They can be dangerous like that.
Ranked eighteenth out of 35 qualifying passers after 8 weeks with an 88.9 rating, Lawrence has been torrid since. He has completed 70.4% of his passes over the last six games (157 of 223), averaging 280 passing yards per game, with a 14-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio – all good for a rating of 111.2. His season rating now stands at 96.6 – the tenth best in football.
Against the Cowboys, he got a huge assist from a long-dormant running game.
Through the season’s first nine weeks, Jacksonville employed one of football’s more potent running attacks. They ranked seventh, averaging 144.1 yards per game on the ground. Over the next four weeks, though, that running game became an after-thought – slipping to just 67 yards per game. But against the Cowboys, running the ball was back in style – to the tune of 192 yards – 116 of them in the second half. Of the 171 yards gained by the running backs, 155 were gained before contact – a stunning 6.46 yards per carry (the NFL average is 2.78 yards before initial contact) in a dominating performance from an offensive line that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Working against a pass rush that led the league in in dropping the opposing quarterback on 10.5% of the pass attempts against them, that Jacksonville O-Line allowed just 1 sack of Lawrence against 42 passes thrown.
A vital run game, and clean pockets have been the key to success for more than one young quarterback.
(Parenthetically, this in not the first time that Dallas has struggled to stop the run this season. This is the third straight week they have allowed over 100 ground yards, and the tenth time this season they have allowed that kind of yardage. Five times, they have allowed more than 150 ground yards. Dallas sits twenty-fourth in run defense, and attacking them overland is a principle component of every game plan against them. In the end – unless they can fix this – this may be the Achilles’ Heel that dooms their season.)
Meanwhile in New York
The contest between the Lions and the Jets was quite different. And that was a surprise in itself. Detroit entered the contest on an offensive roll, averaging 32.2 points per game over its last five games. Meanwhile, the defense had been a season-long issue – allowing 26.7 points per game through their first 13 contests. But the high-flying Lion offense met with stiff resistance from one of football’s better defenses. Facing a defense that runs the fewest blitzes in the NFL, Detroit quarterback Jared Goff only faced 5 blitzes and was tasked with finding receivers who could shake free from the intense Jet coverage – a plan that effectively removed the big-play aspect of the Lion passing game. For the afternoon, Jared only attempted four passes at targets more than ten yards from scrimmage. All four fell incomplete.
This all led to a bevy of missed opportunities for the Lions. They put together three drives during the game that each lasted ten plays, marched at least fifty yards, and consumed at least five minutes of clock time. They had three points to show for those drives. They also found themselves in field goal range after an interception, and settled for just the field goal on that possession as well. The team that entered play scoring touchdowns 75% of the time it entered the red zone finished 0-for-3 in the red zone against the tenacious Jet defense. They ran 66 plays that day. Only one of them gained at least twenty yards – the very last one.
Lions trailing 17-13 with two minutes left in the game. It was fourth-and-one, with Detroit on its own 49-yard line. The Lions lined up with two receivers (DJ Chark and Amon-Ra St. Brown) split to the left, but not very far. Chark – the farthest outside – was only 4.5 yards removed from left tackle Taylor Decker. From the slot, St. Brown came in motion back to the right, carrying Michael Carter with him. Carter had been one of only two defenders on the left side, with D.J. Reed in position to cover Chark. At the snap, Chark ran an in-breaking deep route, effectively clearing Reed from that side of the field as well. The only remaining defender who could possibly make a play on a pass to the left side was linebacker C.J. Mosley, and the play-fake to running back Justin Jackson – who then also carried his route to the right side removed him as well.
Lined up tight to the right of the formation was a little-heralded tight end named Brock Wright, who had dropped the only pass thrown to him thus far in the game. Having coverage on him was probably the other linebacker, Quincy Williams. But, when Wright’s initial action off the line looked like he was blocking, Williams forgot about him and joined the rush.
But Wright wasn’t blocking on this play, carefully weaving his way through traffic to the wide-open ranges of the now-vacant left side. Brock was four yards past the line when he gathered in Goff’s pass with absolutely no one in front of him. On a day when 179 of Goff’s 252 passing yards would come on runs after the catch, Wright provided the last 47 yards the Lions would need this day.
At 7-7, the Lions’ playoff chances are quite good – if they keep winning. Standing in their way are the Carolina Panthers (5-9), Chicago Bears (3-11) and Green Bay Packers (6-8). At 10-7, it would be a surprise if Detroit didn’t get a playoff invite.
The game against the Packers, however, is in Green Bay against a Packer team that is eyeing its own closing sprint to the playoffs. At 10-7, the Lions are a good bet. Any loss in these last three that drops them to 9-8 likely puts them in jeopardy from a Seattle team that beat Detroit earlier in the season. If they pull this off, I believe they will be only the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after a 1-6 start.
The Jaguars path to the post-season is even cleaner. They finish with the Jets (7-7) tonight, the Texans (1-12-1), and then they finish the season at home against Tennessee (now 7-7 after a 4-game losing streak). If they win two of the three – as long as one of the wins is against the Titans – they will likely take the division. With a win already against Tennessee in the books, a Week 18 victory will give them a season sweep and force the fading Titans to beat both the Texans and the Cowboys (10-4) to win the division.
If either of these teams pull this off, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment. If both do, that may be the capper in one of the strangest seasons in memory.
As always, stay tuned.