Over the past decade, the Jacksonville Jaguars turned into a perennial NFL punchline. In the nine seasons since their last playoff appearance, they averaged 4.7 wins. In recent seasons, their relevance ran short by Halloween — they last won more than five games in 2010. Some years, they had more gradients in their uniforms than victories.

Their history makes it hard to believe the Jaguars will contend for anything other than the first pick in the draft. They may just be perfect for an upside-down season. If you’re looking for a team to emerge from the NFL’s goopy mediocrity as a legitimate force, the Jaguars — yes, the Jaguars — would be a compelling choice.

The Jags, in first place in the AFC South at 4-3 entering their bye week, have outscored opponents by 73 points, second-best in the NFL, trailing the Los Angeles Rams by only a point. Per the analytical rankings at Pro Football Focus, Jacksonville has the best defense in the NFL, by a significant margin, and the fourth-best team in the NFL. They have 33 sacks, and the second-highest total in the NFL is 24. The pressure has also resulted in 16 turnovers forced, also a league-high.

They have a battering ram of a running back in Leonard Fournette, who runs behind an overlooked offensive line. Picking several defensive players high in the draft and devoting free agency resources to others, the Jaguars have built a star-laden monster of a defense. Telvin Smith, Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler Jr. — those are only five members of a burgeoning powerhouse unit.

They’re an outlier of a team. In a league predicated on pass-happy offense, they prefer the ground. In a league choked with close games, they either get blown out or, more frequently, do the blowing out. They have played one game decided by fewer than 10 points, a 23-20 loss at the Jets.

It seems like an odd set of binary outcomes, but for the Jaguars it makes perfect sense. If they get a lead, they hammer with Fournette and destroy quarterbacks desperate to pass to get back in the game. If they fall behind, they ask Blake Bortles to take a starring role. In other words, they lean on their worst player, who happens to be their quarterback, to lead a comeback.

The Jaguars’ strengths can turn even a quality opponent hapless, presuming the Jaguars can seize control early. They bullied Ben Roethlisberger into five interceptions as they annihilated Pittsburgh, 30-9, in Week 5, even as Bortles passed for 95 yards.

The reason not to believe in Jacksonville boils down to Bortles. In their loss to Jets, a result that prevents them from owning the second-best record in the NFL, Bortles completed 15 of 35 passes for 140 yards and threw an interception inside his own 10-yard line. His best games come when he stays out of the way, despite Jacksonville’s formidable receiving corps.

It seems difficult to envision a strong running game and a hellacious defense carrying a quarterback like that deep into January, except a team like that won the Super Bowl two years ago. The Jaguars can look to the 2015 Denver Broncos as the best possible version of what they could be. Denver hoisted the Lombardi behind the version of Peyton Manning who tossed lollipop passes and got the Broncos into the right plays at the line of scrimmage. Their pass rush and secondary decimated the league in January, the way Jacksonville hopes to.

The Jaguars have to make the playoffs first, which cannot be taken for granted given their history. But their schedule provides hope. After the Jaguars’ bye this week, their next five games — home for the Bengals and Chargers, at the Browns and Cardinals, then home against the Colts — give them an excellent chance to head into mid-December boasting an 8-4 record, or thereabouts.

So, yes, the Jaguars — the Jaguars — look today like a playoff team. They’re probably not going to win the Super Bowl, but they’re definitely a team you don’t want to play. The Jaguars, finally, are no joke.

>>> Dwight Freeney always wanted to be a Seahawk, and now he is, Bob Condotta writes. The Seahawks signed Freeney to replace edge rusher Cliff Avril, whom they placed on injured reserve last week. “I was literally one week away” from retiring, Freeney said. “I was like, ‘If I don’t get a call now, I can’t go into that same gym and work out doing the same workout again. So thank God these guys called and said they had interest. It kind of pushed me another week to workout and get going. I’m here now and I’m excited.”

>>> Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower will miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers and likely more time, Jeff Howe reports. Hightower injured his shoulder Sunday night in the third quarter, lunging to tackle Devonta Freeman. It’s a huge blow to the Patriots’ defense. Hightower might be their best overall defensive player.

>>> The Jaguars signed Telvin Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract extension. “He has earned this second contract,” Jaguars football czar Tom Coughlin said in a statement. “We want to identify the players who will contribute to helping this team win going forward, and reward those who can do that. Telvin is certainly one of those players for us.”

>>> Cam Newton keeps stirring it up with reporters at news conferences, Conor Orr details. The latest hubbub is inoffensive, unlike his sexist remarks to a female reporter’s question, but perhaps more bizarre. A reporter asked Newton about Carolina’s ability to make big plays on offense, and Newton muttered, “Next question,” waited a couple seconds and split. Newton took a completely innocuous question and created another round of national headlines. Who knows what triggered his annoyance, but he’s too smart too experienced to react that way.

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