The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Doug Pederson has unlocked Trevor Lawrence, and Jaguars are a threat

Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been one of the league's most dangerous passers in recent weeks. (Gary McCullough/AP)
7 min

Doug Pederson has unlocked Trevor Lawrence, and the Jacksonville Jaguars might be headed to the postseason because of it.

The first pick of the 2021 draft is now looking the part, never more so than when he carved up the vaunted Dallas Cowboys defense Sunday. It has some smart people around the league thinking Jacksonville is going to be the last team standing in the AFC South.

Jacksonville (6-8) still has its flaws, especially on defense, but I predicted in this space a few weeks back that the Jaguars would make things interesting in this woeful division. Most of their metrics indicated they were less flawed than the flailing Tennessee Titans, who have lost four straight to fall to 7-7, and now the Jaguars have a head-to-head win over Tennessee working in their favor, too. They have the AFC’s premier strength of victory (.530) after pulling a stunning comeback on the Cowboys, and they are 5-4 in the conference. They’re also 4-2 in their past six, with wins over the Baltimore Ravens (9-5), Titans and Cowboys (10-4), plus a solid outing against the Chiefs. (Their other loss in that stretch was to the Lions, who are in many ways the Jaguars of the NFC and a team no favorite would want to face right now.)

“That’s the best team in that division,” said one AFC GM who is keeping a close eye on the postseason race and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss other teams. “Doug was exactly what the quarterback needed.”

What to know from NFL Week 15: Trevor Lawrence arrives, and Bill Belichick is faltering

Since Week 9, Lawrence has the top passer rating in the NFL (111.2) and his 14 touchdown passes are behind only Patrick Mahomes’s 15, but Lawrence has just one interception in that span. (Mahomes has six!) For much of his career — and especially the first half of this season — Lawrence tended to wilt in the fourth quarter. But he dominated late in wins over the Ravens and Cowboys despite large deficits, and in the past six weeks he has a sterling 118.5 rating in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he’s completing a whopping 76 percent of his passes.

The Jaguars drew scoffs from rival execs for giving wide receiver Christian Kirk $37 million fully guaranteed in free agency, but far less was made of their astute signing of Zay Jones (essentially two years and $16 million) or tight end Evan Engram (one year at $9 million). They have been integral to Lawrence’s development and strong value plays. Jones ranks in the top 15 among wide receivers in receptions and touchdowns since Week 9, while Kirk is tied for 11th in receiving yards on the season and Engram is fifth in receiving yards among tight ends. (He is also tied for third in receptions and tied for sixth in touchdown catches.)

“They got Lawrence what he needed,” the GM said, “but they took a lot of s--- for it. Even the Kirk contract doesn’t look as bad after the receiver market went nuts.”

The Jaguars face a tough defense Thursday night in the Jets, then get the one-win Texans (who won the first meeting) before a rematch with Tennessee in Jacksonville. The Titans face the Texans and Cowboys. This might be the closest we get to division title intrigue this season.

Joe Burrow’s Bengals have surged back into the Super Bowl picture

Keep an eye on the Jets’ front office

Jets owner Woody Johnson did not hire Coach Robert Saleh; Johnson’s brother Chris did while Johnson was serving an ambassador role oversees. And there have long been rumblings about how well the coach and owner have connected.

That chatter has only amplified in recent weeks during the Jets’ slide to 7-7. New York has overachieved this season, and Saleh, a former defensive coordinator, has gotten great returns from that side of the ball. Still, the front-office dynamic is worth monitoring. I continue to hear that Woody Johnson and Saleh aren’t the greatest personality fit and that the coach sometimes rubs the hands-on owner the wrong way. And some league executives can’t help but wonder, if the bottom falls out from a team that was once 6-3, whether Johnson might grow at least somewhat restless, with the recent quarterback juggling only amplifying things.

“They’ve never really clicked, and it’s always been a little awkward between them,” said one GM, who is not at liberty to speak publicly about other organizations. “From what I hear, they’ve never really jelled. It’s not a great fit.”

A QB quandary in New England?

More than one personnel executive I’ve talked with expressed skepticism about Mac Jones this week: “He’s not the guy,” one GM said after watching Jones struggle again Sunday, completing 13 of 31 passes for 112 yards against the lowly Las Vegas Raiders. The New England quarterback missed easy throws repeatedly, and while offensive coordinator Matt Patricia is deficient, it’s hard not to see what rookie Bailey Zappe did in his brief stint in this offense and wonder if he merits another look. An evaluator I trust suggested I compare Zappe’s brief sample with that of San Francisco 49ers rookie Brock Purdy, who has taken the league by storm. Zappe doesn’t benefit from getting to work with Kyle Shanahan and that loaded offensive cast, which made this all the more stunning:

Zappe: 65 for 92 (70.7 percent) for 781 yards, 8.5 yards per attempt, five touchdowns to three interceptions, a 100.9 rating with 14 passes of 20 yards or more and 40.2 percent of passes going for a first down.

Purdy: 62 for 93 (66.7 percent) for 678 yards, 7.3 yards per attempt, six touchdowns to two interceptions, a 100.6 rating with eight passes of 20 yards or more and 35.5 percent of passes going for a first down.

Jones is 29th in the NFL with a rating of 82.6; most of the qualified passers clustered around him have lost their jobs for competitive reasons, including Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, Davis Mills, Baker Mayfield and Zach Wilson. Perhaps Jones should be next.

Candace Buckner: What will Ron Rivera do when Taylor Heinicke’s magic finally runs out?

Notes from around the league

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will probably still win the NFC South, and then Tom Brady will move on. Coach Todd Bowles will probably be safe as long as Tampa Bay reaches the playoffs and doesn’t totally fall apart, but staff changes are imminent.

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has resisted making major changes and didn’t really start to embrace more motion, shifting and early-down play-action until Sunday, and that still resulted in an embarrassing loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which the offense was stagnant for much of the day. It would be a major surprise if Leftwich was back next season. …

Recently fired Titans general manager Jon Robinson is well regarded in the league, and some of his peers anticipate he will end up in one of the Bays next year. He has strong ties to Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht from their time in New England, and one personnel executive noted Green Bay is another potential destination. “Gutey” — Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst — “is his boy,” the exec said. GMs I have spoken to are far less convinced Cardinals GM Steve Keim, on what the team called a health-related leave of absence, resurfaces in a high-profile job of any sort. …

The running back market is always suppressed in free agency, but you could argue that no 2019 first-round draft pick will benefit more from not having his fifth-year option executed — and thus hitting the open market in March — than Josh Jacobs. He carried the Raiders’ offense again in Week 15 and has proved durable and dynamic, and the 2023 free agent class is short on offensive firepower, which should work in his favor. Jacobs leads the NFL in scrimmage yards with 1,858 — nearly 200 more than Derrick Henry, who ranks second — and is tied for ninth with 11 touchdowns. Jacobs also leads the league with 1,495 rushing yards — again, nearly 200 more than Henry — with a stellar average of 5.14 yards per carry. Jacobs doesn’t turn 25 until February.