A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were a team nobody expected to be seeing in the playoffs. They had just went 2-14, clinching the first overall pick in the draft and overhauling their coaching staff in the process.
Despite the overhaul, or perhaps thanks to it, the Chiefs bounced back in a big way thanks in part to a dominant defense. They even went 11-5 even though they had to play the high-octane Denver Broncos twice.
Now, are the Jacksonville Jaguars going to win nine more games than they did last year? That would put them at 13-3, a record even the biggest Jacksonville homer couldn't consider realistic. But they will be this year's Chiefs, a team that seemingly comes out of nowhere and turns it around.
Saying the Jaguars will do so is, on the surface, a tall order. They just got a new quarterback in Blake Bortles, who may or may not be able to usurp Chad Henne during the season. And they lost their star player, Maurice Jones-Drew, to free agency.
For starters, this is the Jaguars. If any team is going to be looked down on and checked off as an easy win in team locker rooms, it's them. If they can get momentum going early in the season like the Chiefs did, then it would be that much easier to make a turnaround.
To get any momentum going there have to be players who step up on both offense and defense, something that the Jaguars did not see much of last year.
On defense, the Jaguars gained some leadership from the perfect place: last's year Super Bowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks. Chris Clemons provides veteran leadership as well as quarterback disruption, while Red Bryant can anchor the defensive line.
On offense, they gave Chad Henne more than enough weapons to work with. On top of Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson can both make an immediate impact—and they should be able to withstand losing Justin Blackmon.
The secondary and offensive line should be improved. Luke Joeckel will finally be able to spend a season at left tackle. John Cyprien had an impressive rookie season and should have a breakout year in 2014, according to Pete Prisco at CBS Sports.
These new and improving pieces are all well and good, but they are not the main reason I'm choosing the Jaguars as this year's surprise team. That honor belongs to head coach Gus Bradley.
After his first year as head coach, the Jaguars look like they might have struck gold with this pick. Yes, they only went 4-12, but after an 0-8 record before the bye week in which they lost two starting left tackles (and faced six playoff teams), Bradley rallied the Jaguars and led them to a post-bye record of 4-4.
Working with Seattle's defense for many years seems to have rubbed off on him, since he's not only bringing in players he knows (Clemons and Bryant, for example), but is building a team and a system that can work hand in hand.
He's the kind of head coach who, as long as he has the time to put his vision together, he has the ability to pull it off. If last year's draft is any indication, his vision is already coming through. Aside from second-round pick Cyprien, the Jaguars' selections included Josh Evans, a sixth-round pick who I felt was one of the draft's biggest steals, and third-round pick Dwayne Gratz. All three are starting in the secondary and could grow into a force together sooner rather than later.
So, the Jaguars have a budding team on both ends of the ball, as well as a great head coach.
They still have to beat teams next year. Luckily for them, their schedule pre-bye week is a lot less brutal this year.
Aside from facing the Redskins and the Cowboys, two teams that tend to be inconsistent in their play from week to week, they face the Steelers, Titans, Browns and Dolphins in a four-week period. All of those games are winnable, so a 5-5 record heading into the bye is entirely possible, as is matching the four win total from last year.
They then get to face the Texans twice. If Houston can't shake off last year's problems, then the Jaguars can win twice again, on top of a second winnable Titans appearance. All of a sudden the Jaguars are at seven wins without even having to act out best-case scenario situations. A .500 record is certainly feasible.
As we all know, in the NFL anything can happen. If the Chiefs can rebound to 11 wins with a coaching change and a game-manager quarterback, why can't the Jaguars hit .500 or better in a much weaker division with improvements on both sides of the ball?
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