By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Remember, if you can, a long, long time ago. January 2018, to be precise.
The Jacksonville Jaguars held a 10-point lead over the mighty New England Patriots — in Foxboro, no less — a few minutes into the fourth quarter of an AFC Championship Game. Behind a ferocious, aggressive defense, the Jaguars appeared to be dethroning the old guard, rising up to claim AFC supremacy and ending the dynastic run of the Patriots.
Yet instead of running two efficient, clock-killing drives, the Jaguars did the following on their final four drives of the game: three-and-out, five plays and a punt, three-and-out, turnover on downs. The Patriots, of course, won the football game.
And though the Jaguars appeared to have exacted some revenge in September of 2018, by way of a 31-20 thumping of Tom Brady and Co. in Jacksonville in Week 2, things soured for Blake Bortles and the boys rather quickly. After a 2-0 start to the 2018 season, the Jaguars went 3-11 the rest of the way.
As a result, they’ve somewhat faded from the discussion of real contenders in the AFC. The Patriots — the AFC’s Super Bowl representative in three straight Super Bowls and four of the last five years — obviously remain there. The Chiefs, with young gun Patrick Mahomes, are right there. The Texans are always in the discussion, the Colts are moving in the right direction, the Chargers were arguably the best team in the conference last year, and the Steelers were considered a legitimate Super Bowl threat, despite ultimately falling short of making the postseason field.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been forgotten.
That, though, may change, as the team is reportedly going to make a long-overdue change at the quarterback position. And they’re going to go get a guy who’s got one major kill of the Patriots on his resume.
According to ESPN, the Jaguars are locked and loaded to sign Nick Foles to a multiyear contract once the league year officially begins.
In doing so, the Jaguars are admitting that signing Blake Bortles to a contract extension last winter was a mistake. That deal guaranteed $26.5 million for Bortles, and it came after head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett showed very little trust in the quarterback in the fourth quarter of that fateful AFC title game loss.
Bortles looked like a modern-day Dante Culpepper in that win over the Patriots (376 passing yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, plus 35 rushing yards on six attempts) the following September, but his season quickly unraveled. He’d finish the year with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, a 79.8 passer rating, and a seat on the bench as Cody Kessler, of all people, seized the starting job for a month.
At 26 years old, there’s a chance that Bortles can rediscover some of the passing ability he showed back at UCF (65.3 percent passing, 8.5 yards per attempt, 50 TDs, 16 INTs in his final two seasons combined). But he was clearly not going to find that in Jacksonville.
And though it may be a year late, the change at quarterback just might be what the Jaguars need to climb back into the conversation as a legitimate contender in the AFC.
Patriots fans — and Vikings fans — know all too well that Foles is capable of rising to a certain level in big games. In the 2017 NFC title game, he threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns with zero picks against a top-rated Minnesota defense. That proved to just be a warmup act for Foles’ Super Bowl performance against the Patriots: 373 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, and one Super Bowl MVP trophy to keep by his bedside.
And in the 2018, when Carson Wentz suffered another injury, the Foles Magic was rekindled for another ride. Foles started five games — two in September and three in December — and won four of them. Though he wasn’t perfect (7 TDs, 4 INTs), he did complete 72.3 percent of his passes, and there was just something about the way he ran that Philadelphia offense that stood out. There was real speculation — unfounded speculation, but that’s neither here nor there — that the Eagles might have to consider sticking with Foles over Wentz, the franchise QB, if the winning didn’t cease.
His postseason stats weren’t great, but he did lead the Eagles on a game-winning drive in Chicago in the wild card round, and he may have done the same thing the next week in New Orleans if his pass to Alshon Jeffery at the edge of the red zone didn’t slip right through his receiver’s hands.
It may sound corny or imaginary or very much like a Disney movie narrative, but watching Foles run the offense, it was very clear that his teammates believed in him.
The same could never quite be said about Bortles in Jacksonville.
So, at the very least, it’ll be awfully interesting to see what the Jaguars are capable of doing in 2019 and beyond with a capable quarterback leading the huddle. The Jaguars’ defense took a minor step backward last season, going from second to fifth in total defense and from second to fourth in scoring defense. But the key players — Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Tashaun Gipson, Malik Jackson — will be back in 2019. The defense should be what the defense has been for two years.
And offensively, with Foles reuniting with offensive coordinator John DeFilippo — the man who was the Eagles’ QBs coach and helped give birth to Foles Magic in that 2017 championship run — the Jaguars have to now be once again considered a Super Bowl threat.
Of course, that won’t magically happen for them. The Jags are coming off a 5-11 campaign that included a 40-7 beatdown by the Cowboys and a fracas-filled loss at Buffalo — a season that ended with Tom Coughlin writing a sternly worded message about the no-good, rotten attitude of Leonard Fournette. Not every franchise is capable of turning it around quickly.
But the Jaguars, under Marrone, did just that two years ago. Promoted to head coach from offensive line coach/assistant head coach after the firing of Gus Bradley, Marrone was given the official head coach title coming off a 3-13 season in 2016. Not much was expected from the Jaguars the following season, who found themselves with a 10-4 record in mid-December. They dropped their final two regular-season games but outlasted Buffalo in the wild card round before stunning the Steelers in Pittsburgh with a 45-42 win in the divisional round. They came within one play of beating the Patriots and earning the right to face Foles and the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. (Myles Jack was down, though.)
They’ve turned it around once before, and they can turn it around again. Foles may not be the greatest quarterback in the NFL, but the Jaguars haven’t needed an MVP-caliber player at that position. With a defense as potent as the one they have, the Jaguars have simply needed someone who’s good enough, someone who can make a big throw or two in a critical moment to win a game.
Nick Foles, still just 30 years old, is certainly that guy.
And though it’s only early March, it’s not too early to say the Jaguars are right back in the mix as a bona fide threat in the AFC.