Jacksonville's last three opponents boast a combined record of 10-20, and each came within a field goal of leaving the Jaguars at .500 or below.
Nevertheless, six wins over the past nine weeks have pushed Jacksonville near the front of the AFC's wide-open wild card race. Mathematically, though long shots to catch the undefeated Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, the Jaguars are strong contenders for a playoff berth.
Some weeks, they even look like it.
Having beaten the Houston Texans solidly (31-24) and taken the Colts to the final minutes of a 14-12 loss, Jacksonville's play has seen high points. The Jaguars' successful comeback drives against the Bills, St. Louis Rams, and New York Jets, too, have featured the late-game mettle so crucial to postseason success.
From game to game, though, Jacksonville's results this season have been head-scratchingly inconsistent.
Coming off a 37-17 beating of AFC South rival Tennessee in October, for instance, the Jaguars were blown out 41-0 by the Seahawks in Seattle. Three weeks later, they lost 30-13 to those still-winless Titans.
Ranking the NFL's 32 teams amidst a season of weekly revelations is, in itself, a difficult task. Ranking them from Jacksonville's perspective? Doubly so.
Still, as the Jaguars begin a six-game stretch that will test them for the football's "second season" in January, their strength against the rest of the league is a good indication of how far they have to go.
The list starts at the bottom with teams Jacksonville should own:
30. Buffalo (3-7) — The Bills took advantage of the Jaguars' inexperienced secondary, but only had 15 points to show for it. Their defense let up on the worst possible drive.
29. St. Louis (1-9) — Teams in this tier generally do much worse than losses by five and eight points against New Orleans and Arizona. Steve Spagnuolo doesn't let his team quit.
28. Washington (3-7) — The NFL's highest-paid underachievers enter the teeth of what had been an easy schedule: the Redskins' last six opponents are a combined 39-22.
27. Detroit (2-8) — "Bobby Layne would be proud," SI.com's Peter King told rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford after Sunday's comeback win. The Lions' future isn't bleak.
24. Seattle (3-7) — The only way the Seahawks could make their drubbing of the Jaguars more embarrassing? Going 1-4 with a -70 point differential in their five games since.
Considering Jacksonville's 3-1 record and -32 point differential against this group, "should" is the operative word. Teams in this tier of the league are easy fodder for most playoff-caliber teams, but several unspectacular opponents have been able to cause problems for Jacksonville.
The Jaguars' 24-21 defeat of Kansas City wasn't as close as the final score would suggest, but St. Louis and Buffalo both took them to the wire.
Jacksonville's Week 17 game against hapless Cleveland could be a ticket into the postseason, but it might not come easily.
Past the NFL's pariahs, the next tier up consists of teams the Jaguars should respect:
23. N.Y. Jets (4-6) — Their trust in Mark Sanchez is admirable, but he needs training wheels. A heavy dose of his team's second-ranked ground game, for instance, might help.
19. Miami (5-5) — Without Ronnie Brown, the Dolphins' traditional running game rolled on behind Jake Long, Anthony Fasano, and their offensive line. Bill Parcells' plan for them is taking shape.
18. Denver (6-4) — Losing to the Redskins two weeks ago was a bad omen. East coast trip or not, that's a team Detroit and Kansas City beat. Still, the Broncos aren't freefalling—yet.
17. Atlanta (5-5) — During the Falcons' current 1-4 skid to level out their 4-1 start, they've faced four teams coming off bye weeks and three top playoff contenders. Tough.
16. Houston (5-5) — Perennial preseason darlings, the Texans are two late-game field goals away from having broken free of .500 in the past two weeks. Them's the breaks.
15. Tennessee (4-6) — Nationally, the media stresses that Vince Young is responsible for the Titans' resurgence. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson's averaging 160 yards a game.
Jacksonville's 3-1 record against this group represents three of the Jaguars' best performances this season and one of their worst. In wins against New York, Houston, and Tennessee, Jacksonville moved the ball efficiently on offense and made plays in crucial situations on defense.
The Jaguars' loss to the Titans, though, demonstrated their capacity for poor tackling, haphazard offensive playcalling, and lapses in coverage. Against this caliber of opponent, Jacksonville's margin for such errors shrinks significantly. They've proven capable of beating these teams by simply keeping mistakes to a minimum.
Next, though, are teams who are always on the Jaguars' level:
13. Green Bay (6-4) — Aside from one hiccup against Tampa Bay, the Packers have plowed into their opponents—good and bad alike—with a consistent, efficient brand of football.
12. Pittsburgh (6-4) — Speed bumps are a minor nuisance, but it's important to slow down for them. The Steelers must have felt sure they'd beat the Chiefs up until they didn't.
10. Cincinnati (7-3) — Sweeps of Baltimore and Pittsburgh legitimize the Bengals more than any one goof-up—even against the Raiders—assuming they beat down the Browns.
Jacksonville's schedule doesn't include any of the five teams who have consistently played at a level that would pose a threat to an on-the-ball Jaguars team this year. Each of these teams boasts the talent and coaching to counter Jacksonville's balanced offense and big-play defense on the Jaguars' best day.
In racing toward a wild card spot, Jacksonville's next three games are against San Francisco, Miami, and Houston—three teams a notch below these five. Facing the "respect" tier, the Ravens, Packers, Steelers, Giants, and Bengals are a combined 7-3.
Most teams are dangerous some of the time, but good teams still take care of business. These are the Jaguars' role models.
Lastly, the NFL's upper crust consists of teams above Jacksonville's level:
8. Philadelphia (6-4) — With weapons aplenty, the Eagles have the talent on both sides of the ball to play better than they're playing. A tragic case study in over-coaching.
6. Arizona (7-3) — Judging from Matt Leinart's performance in limited action, the Cardinals' offense is all in Kurt Warner's concussed head, blossoming ground game or not.
4. New Orleans (10-0) — True, the Saints haven't lost yet. Too true, they've shown impressive grit in battling back in several games. Still, the Patriots aren't St. Louis or Miami.
3. New England (7-3) — With that said, they're not the Vikings, either. The NFL's top two teams are distinguished by their dominance, while the Patriots have lapsed at times.
2. Minnesota (9-1) — Aside from passing into a brick wall against the Steelers, the Vikings have seemed invincible more often this season than all of the league's other teams...
1. Indianapolis (10-0) — ...except for the Colts, who, in repelling Miami's 45 minutes of possession and New England's 17-point fourth quarter lead, have seemed untouchable.
The Jaguars, not surprisingly, are 0-2 this season against this level of competition. Starting four rookies and overhauling over half of the team's roster, Jacksonville simply lacks the man-power to match up with the best of the league's best.
These teams aren't invincible, of course. The Raiders, Jets, Panthers, and 49ers boast upset wins over some of them—outliers, all. Jacksonville came within a two-point conversion of interrupting Indianapolis' 19-game regular season winning streak.
Most teams, truth be told, have a similar story of an "almost" win.
This list jumps from the Giants (10) to the Eagles (8), leaving a gap at the ninth rank. On a good day—with Maurice Jones-Drew running downhill, Mike Sims-Walker taking advantage of spaces in the opposing secondary, and the defense forcing opponents into low-percentage passes—that's where the Jaguars rank.
9. Jacksonville (6-4) — Game-changers Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker lurk behind an inconsistent line and a defense that can't wait to get Rashean Mathis back.
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