INSIDE SCOOP

Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

July 24, 2018 at 1:10 am.

Jaguars believe they are Super-Bowl ready

The Jacksonville Jaguars can’t wait to play their first regular-season game against the New York Giants on Aug. 9. Because then the Jaguars can hopefully put to rest the memories of the last time they played in a game. That would be the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots on Jan. 21. The Jaguars have good memories of the first three quarters of that contest when they held a 20-10 lead. The last 15 minutes? Not so good. That’s when Tom Brady led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and denied the Jaguars their first-ever appearance in a Super Bowl.

When rookies and first-year players reported to camp on July 18 and the veterans were scheduled to follow one week later, it brought about plenty of discussion about the painful memories of six months ago. So close, yet …

“That will always be in the back of our mind; we missed that opportunity to go play for a Super Bowl,” quarterback Blake Bortles said during the offseason. “It just gives us more motivation to get there and win it.”

A year ago at this time, there was little discussion of Super Bowl aspirations. The Jaguars were coming off a 3-13 season the year before, the sixth consecutive season that the team had won five or fewer games. But there was more positive talk in training camp that had been there in previous years. The Jaguars had struck it rich in free-agent acquisitions with the likes of defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and strong safety Barry Church. Bolstered by the play of cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue during their rookie seasons in 2016, and with promising new rookies running back Leonard Fournette and tackle Cam Robinson showing plenty of promise, optimism was peaking for the Jaguars a year ago.

If optimism was high a year ago, it’s off the charts for 2018. And why not? Jacksonville returns all the key components that were instrumental in the team playing in its first AFC title game since the 1999 season. Two losses on defense – middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (retired) and nickel back Aaron Colvin (signed with Houston) need to be replaced, but 10 other starters return healthy and eager to seek a return to the AFC Championship Game. Offensively, two starters have departed – tight end Marcedes Lewis and guard Patrick Omameh, neither of whom the Jaguars elected to re-sign to extended contracts. Instead they upgraded both positions by signing free agents Andrew Norwell, an All-Pro guard with Carolina and a pass-catching tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, both of whom bring instant improvement to the offense.

“Adding Andrew up front will allow us to be more efficient in the running game, which will only open up more stuff in play action down the field,” Bortles said. “With Dede (Westbrook) and Keelan (Cole) being in it for a year and having an understanding of the things we want to get done and the intricacies of each route, I think everything only grows from (last year).”

And that includes Bortles. The fifth-year veteran was signed to a three-year, $54 million contract during the offseason, putting to rest speculation as to whether or not the Jaguars will move forward with him or another quarterback. He had wrist surgery shortly after the season ended to correct an injury that he rarely talked about, and did not throw the ball for six weeks, a practice he said falls in line with his normal end-of-the-season routine. Bortles also spent time in California working with mentors Tom House and Adam Dedeaux that he’s known throughout his career and who he doles out praise for helping him with his development as a NFL quarterback.

“I went out there and fine-tuned some things – different from last offseason which was a mechanical overhaul of trying to tighten things up and fix all of that,” Bortles said. “For the most part, it was ‘Let’s figure out some tweaks and things,’ and see if we could mess with different footwork for timing. It was more about getting back into the rhythm of throwing the ball.”

The Jaguars also added to his cast of receivers to throw to this fall, acquiring veteran Donte Moncrief and using a second-round draft selection on talented receiver DJ Chark. Bortles is focused on one thing on the eve of starting his fifth NFL season.

“Constantly growing in the right direction. We have everybody coaching-wise back, we have a good foundation of players that are coming back and everybody has been in the system so we have a good base of knowledge,” he said.

Bortles is coming off one of his best overall seasons. He passed for 3,687 yards and had 21 touchdowns against a career-low 13 interceptions. He was particularly effective when reaching the red zone. That’s where he finished with 18 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 106.1, sixth best in the NFL.

If Bortles can post similar passing numbers again this year and the running game, which ranked No. 1 in the league last year, turns in a similar performance, Jacksonville will be a Super Bowl contender. There’s no reason to think that the defense won’t again play at a high clip. It’s a unit that finished second in the NFL in sacks, interceptions and takeaways and in all three categories the Jaguars trailed the league leader by just one. Jacksonville did lead the NFL in points scored off turnovers and red-zone touchdowns allowed.

Winning the AFC South a year ago means the schedule will be tougher in 2018, including facing both of last year’s Super Bowl participants, the Eagles and Patriots. Both will be Jaguars home games though the Philadelphia contest will be played in London. After opening at the Giants, the Jaguars will host New England the second week of the season, likely to give an early indication of the team to beat in the AFC this season.

 

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK

SCARBROUGH'S TAKE

College Fans, Beware The Man in the Bottle.