The Jacksonville Jaguars had every opportunity of beating the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday but ultimately came up short, ending their season. The game finished 27-20, showing exactly how impressive the Chiefs are. Andy Reid and Steve Spagnuolo played an outstanding chess match against the Jaguars staff. But Doug Pederson and Co. will come away from the game discussing self-inflicted wounds.
The Jaguars Arrow Points Sharply Upward
The Jaguars’ season ended on Saturday, but their story is just beginning. While things can move quickly in the NFL, it appears that Jacksonville is set up for relative success over the next decade. Trevor Lawrence rounded into a legitimate star during the back half of the season. And while he threw five interceptions in just two playoff appearances, it’s clear that he possesses outrageous ability.
After being the worst team in the NFL a season ago, thanks to a hilariously bad coaching hire and poor roster, Jacksonville finished winning seven of nine games this season. If they’d started games more urgently, maybe they’d have utterly dominated the AFC South.
Part of the Jaguars’ outlook is because of how the other three AFC South teams project in the near future. The long-term outlook at quarterback for each of the remaining three South teams is unknown. The Colts and Texans will undoubtedly draft theirs in the 2023 NFL Draft, while the Titans won’t have Ryan Tannehill under center forever. Even so, with Lawrence in the Jaguars’ locker room, Jacksonville isn’t particularly worried about Tannehill.
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Jacksonville also has a Super Bowl-winning head coach, one of the better play-callers in the NFL, and three picks inside of the top 100 to address their more pressing needs. They don’t have a fantastic cap situation heading into 2023, but the roster is already competitive, and we’re still only scratching the surface of Lawrence’s potential.
Christian Kirk and Evan Engram are great weapons, but the Jaguars could use an outside receiver with more upside than either of the Jones. A difference-making outside receiver could take the offense to the next level.
But the most disappointing aspect of the loss is that much of it was self-inflicted by Jacksonville. There were so many opportunities that if only one happened, maybe the Jaguars comes away with the win.
If Foyesade Oluokun catches the interception; if Kirk catches the Lawrence bomb over the middle; if Jamal Agnew doesn’t fumble as he tucked the ball after the catch, and if the protection didn’t fail too often against Spagnuolo’s pressures, the Jaguars might be playing in the AFC Conference Championship.
Trevor Lawrence Showed Guts in the Playoffs
The former Clemson Tiger threw four straight touchdowns on the night he threw four first-half interceptions. Lawrence displayed outstanding poise in the playoffs under adversity and also outstanding toughness as he was consistently assaulted by free rushers against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday.
In multiple high-leverage moments against the Chiefs, Lawrence used his legs to make plays against Kansas City’s defense. Pederson still hasn’t figured out how to maximize Lawrence’s athleticism in the QB-run game. Watching him lower his shoulder against defenders won’t help Lawrence’s case for garnering more touches because his health is worth more than his contribution on the ground, but we’ve seen him be effective in running the ball dating back to high school.
Lawrence was hit seven times and sacked twice against Kansas City. Spagnuolo toyed with the Jaguars’ pass protection all night with his blitz packages. With the inexperience between rookie Luke Fortner at center and Lawrence under center, the savvy defensive coordinator took full advantage, throwing free rushers at Jacksonville’s QB unimpeded.
Lawrence stood tall in the pocket and delivered under duress despite it all. Although the results weren’t what they’d hoped in the end, Lawrence proved he’s on the path to superstardom.
The Patrick Mahomes Ankle Injury
Patrick Mahomes is the best football player on Earth. Maybe there’s a galaxy far away with freakier talents in this earthly game they’ve adopted, but Mahomes is our alien. And before his ankle injury on Saturday night, he was showing exactly what makes him so special.
He was escaping pressure and creating chaos for the Jaguars’ defensive backfield until Arden Key launched himself into Mahomes and unfortunately landed with all the weight in his lower half on Mahomes’ lower leg. It was gruesome seeing him go down and magical to see him get back up. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to go next week in the Conference Championship.
Even if Mahomes can go next week, there’s no chance he’ll be anywhere close to 100%, which significantly hampers the upside of Kansas City’s offense. While a high ankle sprain is never good, it can be particularly bad on the right ankle of a right-handed QB, because they generate a considerable amount of their power from driving off that foot.
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Mahomes has proven on many occasions that his feet aren’t necessarily needed to throw a laser beam, but those instances are reserved for special situations, like his middle-of-field jump pass in the first quarter on Saturday. It was clear throwing the ball was a challenge for him on a down-to-down basis because of his leg.
It’s unlikely that 37-year-old Chad Henne can lead the Chiefs past the Bills or Bengals, but he helped Kansas City past Jacksonville while commanding the Chiefs’ longest drive in playoff history. A roughing call against Key gave Kansas City a free 15 yards, but the quick passing game and Isiah Pacheco were what made the difference on that drive.
Oh, and the Chiefs’ play-caller.
Andy Reid and Steve Spagnuolo Give Chiefs a Huge Advantage
Spagnuolo’s defense gave Lawrence and the Jaguars fits and opportunities. He was playing a chess match against a play-caller not unlike his own. Pederson is one of the best, and watching the chess match between the Jaguars offense and Chiefs defense was spectacular.
Reid and Pederson specialize in creating quick concepts to get the ball out quickly and in space as an extension of the run game. Pederson did a great job using formations, motion, and misdirection to get easy completion and yards-after-catch opportunities.
But in the end, Spagnuolo’s pressures decimated the Jaguars’ offensive line. Chris Jones is an outrageous individual talent, but Spagnuolo’s blitz and four-man pressure packages made all the difference.
It’s not all perfect. Pederson was able to get Kirk on a wheel out of the backfield against Geroge Karlaftis in coverage for a touchdown early on. As the game progressed, it was clear Fortner and Lawrence were spinning as they tried accounting for where Spagnuolo was going to be bringing rushers from. Those breakdowns in protection caused Lawrence’s interception late in the game as the Jaguars tried mounting another comeback.
Reid had to adjust on the fly as well. The Chiefs’ offense had already undergone changes this season without the presence of Tyreek Hill, but it was clear that Reid doesn’t mind adjusting on the fly. It should be of no surprise that Reid is also a wizard at getting the ball out quickly to playmakers, considering Pederson learned much of what he knows as an offensive architect from Reid.
It should come as no surprise that Kadarius Toney emerged after Mahomes’ injury. But the addition of Pacheco’s furious running style helped make the game’s difference. The Chiefs’ run game, and most likely Jerick McKinnon’s pass-catching ability out of the backfield, will play an integral part in the success or failure a week from now.
If anyone can scheme themselves a win in a conference championship with a hobbled starter or 37-year-old journeyman, it’s Reid.