Here come the Jags

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Don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars look like they could make some noise in the AFC this year.

Yes, those Jags. The same ones who have finished 6-10 or worse each of the last four season and in 10 of the last 11. The same ones who hired Urban Meyer as their coach, only to fire him 13 games into the 17-game season in 2021. The same ones who signed Christian Kirk — who hadn’t had a 1,000-yard season yet — to a four-year, $70 million contract this offseason.

Jacksonville, along with Cleveland, has long been one of the laughingstocks of the league. The team you circle on your schedule as an easy win or the one you pray you catch after you just suffered a loss. But the 2022 Jags look like they’ve exorcised many of the demons that haunted the franchise’s past.

Sunday, Jacksonville obliterated the Los Angeles Chargers — among a handful of teams considered favorites in the AFC this season — by a score of 38-10 on the road to improve to 2-1 on the season. The Chargers were, admittedly, not at full strength, but I’m not sure it would have mattered if they were healthy the way the Jaguars executed their gameplan.

Let’s start with the quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. The No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the former Clemson star, was touted by many a bust after a rough first season in the league where he had more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12). But Lawrence looks to have full turned things around and is playing more consistently to the level of play he flashed at times as a rookie. Sunday, Lawrence completed 28 of 39 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. On the year, he’s thrown for 772 yards and has six touchdowns to just one interception.

While the stats aren’t the flashiest, the eye test shows Lawrence has made some dramatic improvements from a year ago. He’s holding onto the ball less, limiting turnover-worthy plays and generally playing with a more efficient manner.

Lawrence has been aided by an improved Jacksonville offensive line that added guard Brandon Scherff in the offseason to go with franchise left tackle Cam Robinson. The Jags have allowed just two sacks through their first three games, a pace that would put them behind the pace they had last year when they finished the year with 32 given up in 17 games.

The offensive line has also played a large part in Jacksonville’s success running the football. The Jaguars currently rank 10th in the league in rushing yards per game (123.3) through three weeks. Jacksonville has a unique tandem of backs, with James Robinson serving as the more traditional north-south runner and Travis Etienne getting a lot of the third-down work. Robinson is currently ninth in the NFL in rushing (230 yards), while Etienne has run for 112 yards and has caught eight passes for 81 yards so far in 2022.

Defensively, Jacksonville has allowed just 10 points over the last two weeks, which included a 24-0 shutout of the Colts in Week 2. The Jags are currently seventh in the league in total defense (306.7 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (55.0).

The Jags have playmakers at every level, and several have stepped up in a big way so far this season. On the defensive line, No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker already has a sack and an interception. Fellow first-round pick and rookie linebacker Devin Lloyd leads the team in total tackles (24) , passes defensed (6) and interceptions (2) and veteran corner Shaquill Griffin has been lock-down in coverage.

Finally, perhaps the biggest reason for the Jags’ improvement is the coaching of Doug Pederson, former Super Bowl-winner with the Philadelphia Eagles who is clearly 800 times better a coach than Meyer was for this Jacksonville team.

Pederson has bought a basic competency to the locker room that is perhaps taken for granted with most professional organizations. But with a new leader lighting the way, the Jags look like they’ve completely bought in, and I expect them to continue to play competitive football the entire season and win the AFC South.

Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at jeremy@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.

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