JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars were alone atop the AFC South this late in a season, they lost three straight and missed the playoffs.
They don’t expect it to happen again.
Having won six of their last seven games and with quarterback Blake Bortles playing the best football of his NFL career, the Jaguars (9-4) believe they’re poised for a December push that will result in the franchise’s first postseason game – maybe even at home – since 2008.
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”This is not the old Jaguars team,” rookie running back Leonard Fournette said following a 30-24 victory against Seattle on Sunday.
There’s little doubt this is Jacksonville’s best team in a decade, maybe even longer. The Jaguars finished 11-5 in 2007, earned a wild-card berth and then won at Pittsburgh. They lost the following week at then-undefeated New England and have failed to get back to the playoffs since.
Their best shot came in 2010, when they were 8-5 and leading the division before stumbling down the stretch.
Tight end Marcedes Lewis, the lone holdover from Jacksonville’s last playoff team, said this year feels much different.
”In the building, we knew what was ahead of us, and nobody tightened up,” Lewis said. ”This win was big for us and next week is going to be even bigger for us.”
The Jaguars wrap up a three-game homestand next Sunday against injury-riddled Houston (4-9), which has dropped three straight and five in a row on the road. Jacksonville can clinch a playoff berth with a victory.
”It’s obviously the best it has ever felt since a lot of us have been here,” Bortles said. ”There are a couple guys that have been around for a while. I think for the majority of the locker room and the team and the guys that have been here for a year or two or three years that this is really the first taste of playing meaningful football in December.
”It feels good. It’s tough to explain. It is awesome. It’s a good feeling.”
The Jaguars have a lot to feel good about right now.
It starts with Bortles, who has been close to flawless the last two games.
Bortles completed 44 of 62 passes for 577 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, in consecutive home wins against Indianapolis and Seattle. He was sacked just once in those games, too.
”He’s doing his thing, and he’s cool as a cat,” Lewis said. ”When we’re not doing well or we take a bad loss, he gets all the blame, so he deserves a lot of praise for what’s he’s doing out there and how he’s been leading. He’s been leading from the front. He doesn’t blame nobody when people drop the ball or a negative play happens. He doesn’t blame nobody. He just goes out there and continues to work.”
Bortles has a fully healthy offensive line for the first time since early October, has Fournette (ankle) back at full speed and is getting productivity from rookie receivers Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Fellow receiver Allen Hurns (ankle) is expected back this week, so that could be a plus down the stretch, too.
Special teams have provided a spark in recent weeks, with Jaydon Mickens’ 72-yard return that set up a touchdown against the Seahawks being the latest boost. Josh Lambo, signed off the street in mid-October, has made 16 of 17 field goals and 13 of 14 extra points.
And Jacksonville’s defense continues making big plays. Even though Russell Wilson torched the vaunted secondary for touchdowns of 26, 61 and 74 yards Sunday, he also threw three interceptions that the Jaguars turned into 10 points.
All those performances have Jacksonville playing meaningful games in December for the first time in years.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey said the Jaguars don’t really care about what people think.
”It’s our first winning season in a while,” Ramsey said. ”We’re happy about that. We’re going to keep grinding, trying to stack some wins. That’s what it’s about right now.”
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