2018 NFL Preview: The Jaguars came oh-so-close to making the Super Bowl. Now what?

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
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The Jacksonville Jaguars reached a 90.7 percent win probability in the AFC championship game, according to NumberFire.com’s methods. If you prefer ESPN’s model, the Jaguars’ win probability was as high as 93 percent. They were practically a lock to upset the New England Patriots and go to the Super Bowl. It was that close.

The problem with letting a chance like that pass is you’re never assured of making it back. The Jaguars forced the Patriots into a third-and-18 with less than 11 minutes left. They led 20-10. That was when their win probability reached its peak. Then the four-man rush couldn’t get close to Tom Brady, Danny Amendola found a soft spot in the Jaguars’ zone, and Brady hit him for 21 yards before safety Tashaun Gipson could get there and break it up. That was the first of many plays the Jaguars didn’t make down the stretch as the Patriots staged a great comeback.

The Jaguars went from a 90 percent chance of making the Super Bowl to having their season end in 11 minutes.

“That [Patriots’ loss], I’m always going to be sick every time I see it,” Calais Campbell told Jacksonville.com.

Defensive end Malik Jackson said he didn’t watch the tape until May 14.

“I couldn’t bring myself to watch it before then,” Jackson said, according to Jacksonville.com. “You look back and say, ‘We should have beat those guys. We were better.’ It took me a long time to get over it.”

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The Jaguars weren’t lucky to be in that spot. While their 2017 was a massive improvement, it was built on a solid foundation. Jacksonville had either the best or second-best defense in the NFL last season, depending on how you feel about Minnesota. This season, 10 defensive starters return.

Even with a tremendous defense that returns mostly intact, it’ll be tough to repeat. The offense was better than most people probably realize, but the staff still doesn’t seem to trust quarterback Blake Bortles all that much. Bortles’ inconsistency doesn’t seem to be an issue that will ever go away. Leonard Fournette has talent and played well at times, but he wasn’t efficient last season. And the defense was mostly healthy through last season, and that’s never guaranteed to repeat.

The Jaguars suddenly have to play as a favorite, too. Jacksonville won 22 games over six seasons before 2017. They went from being one of the worst teams in the NFL to its sudden success story.

“People are going to want to go back to last year,” coach Doug Marrone said, according to Jacksonville.com. “Last year, we wrapped that in a box. There are lessons we learned from it. We appreciate the season, we appreciate what went on, but now we’re sitting here 0-0.”

There’s not a lot of faith in the Jaguars. According to OddsShark, oddsmakers set the Jaguars’ win total this season at just nine. Their Super Bowl odds of 22-to-1 is tied for 11th best in the NFL. That’s a huge leap from where the Jaguars were last season, but it’s also a long way from being a 90 percent shot to make a Super Bowl.

Everything is in place for the Jaguars to make another run. Bortles might be maligned, but he has played well for stretches and has good talent around him. Fournette will probably be better, especially since he’s in great shape coming into the season, and help carry the offense. The defense has the talent to end up on the list of all-time great defenses that carried a team to a title.

The challenge is climbing all the way back up the mountain, and not falling down right before they reach the top this time.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles will try to take his team to the Super Bowl this season. (AP)
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles will try to take his team to the Super Bowl this season. (AP)

Only one team added a 2017 first-team All-Pro player this offseason. It was the Jaguars, who signed guard Andrew Norwell from the Carolina Panthers. Jacksonville made other moves, like grabbing cornerback D.J. Hayden, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Donte Moncrief, but Norwell was the prize of the offseason. The Jaguars lost some good players. Receiver Allen Robinson, who was out most of last season with an ACL injury, signed with the Chicago Bears. Cornerback Aaron Colvin signed with the Houston Texans. The draft was solid, mostly with players who should contribute right away, led by rookie defensive tackle Taven Bryan. The Jaguars helped themselves.

GRADE: B+

In a passing league, the Jaguars have the best pass defense. Their cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, are both top 5-10 players at their position. The pass rush, which had 55 sacks, helps. Last season the Jaguars allowed a 68.5 passer rating. Among all NFL quarterbacks with more than 160 passes last season, the only one who had a passer rating worse than 68.5 was DeShone Kizer. On average, the Jaguars basically turned every quarterback they faced into the second-worst quarterback in the league. With 10 defensive starters returning, the Jaguars should be stifling against the pass yet again.

In a playoff game against the Bills last season, Blake Bortles completed 12 passes for 87 yards. He was the first quarterback this century to win a playoff game with fewer than 100 passing yards on at least 20 attempts. Bortles is never going to be the type of quarterback to carry his team. The Jaguars hope he can keep the chains moving and doesn’t make mistakes, and perhaps he hits a hot streak in the postseason. There will, however, always be a concern that Bortles will have one of his shakiest games at the worst time.

The Jaguars are in an uncomfortable spot with Blake Bortles. It’s hard to reset at quarterback in the NFL because good quarterbacks are almost never available. And Jacksonville came so close to the Super Bowl last season, it doesn’t want to make the wrong choice and screw up what it has. So Bortles got a three-year, $54 million extension. The deal actually lowered his cap number for this season, and it’s a contract the Jaguars can get out of if he craters this season. It’s another reminder that teams often make suboptimal decisions with mediocre quarterbacks because they fear the unknown.

It’s rare for a free-agent signing to be as good as Calais Campbell (or cornerback A.J. Bouye for that matter … the Jaguars did well last offseason). Campbell spent years playing at a high level with the Arizona Cardinals without much recognition. By now, everyone knows how good he is. Playing on a very talented defense, Campbell had a career-high 14.5 sacks and was named All-Pro. He’ll be 32 before Week 1, so that will become a factor at some point. But for now, Campbell is the biggest difference maker up front on a fantastic defense.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “There’s a chance to make a nifty profit somewhere on the Jacksonville passing tree, because the wide receiver depth chart is packed like a Manhattan subway. Dede Westbrook (129 Yahoo ADP) is currently the priciest guy, followed closely by Marqise Lee (132). Keelan Cole and Donte Moncrief will be undrafted in a lot of leagues, but are also in the mix for playing time.

“If you want the best floor, follow the money and go with Lee. The team gave him $38 million ($18 guaranteed) over four years, and he’s quietly racked up 119 catches for 1,553 yards the past two years, despite modest playing time. He’s certainly the receiver Blake Bortles knows the most. The unheralded Cole looks like the upside pick for the late rounds (or maybe an early waiver-wire grab); he wasn’t even drafted in 2017, but he made the Jags and showed gradual improvement, finishing with a snappy 17.8 YPC on his 42 receptions.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Jaguars.]

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Guess which team was fifth in the NFL in scoring and sixth in total yardage? That’s right, it was the Jaguars. Having the defense create a lot of three-and-outs and good field position helped, but the offense doesn’t lack talent. Young receivers like Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole played well, and Marqise Lee is a solid if unspectacular No. 1 option. Leonard Fournette averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie and his 44 percent success rate by Football Outsiders’ metrics ranked just 26th among NFL backs, behind guys like Frank Gore, Orleans Darkwa and Jonathan Stewart. We all know Fournette has the talent to be much better. Additions like tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, receiver Donte Moncrief and especially guard Andrew Norwell will help. The offense could be even better this season, and it was already better than you remember in 2017.

IS JALEN RAMSEY THE BEST CORNERBACK IN THE NFL?

The Dallas Cowboys would have been better off drafting Ramsey instead of running back Ezekiel Elliott two years ago. Elliott had the better rookie season, but Ramsey is now one of the best players in football.

Ramsey was considered by many the best player regardless of position in the 2016 draft, and that seems to be coming to fruition. Ramsey had seven games last season in which he gave up 20 or fewer yards, according to Pro Football Focus. There are several great corners around the NFL. Ramsey’s teammate A.J. Bouye is one. But if I had to pick one cornerback, it would be Ramsey. He’s going to be the best in the league for a long time.

We know what the defense brings to the table. It’s championship quality. If Leonard Fournette is better in his second year and Blake Bortles finds a groove and stays there, the Jaguars can win a Super Bowl. We’ve seen teams ride a defense-first formula to a title. There will always be concern over a Bortles meltdown, but his peak isn’t bad. It’s just hard to predict what you’ll get game to game. Bortles doesn’t need to be the best quarterback in the NFL. It’s still a run-first offense with an elite defense. It’s not too hard to imagine Bortles becoming a more reliable quarterback, in the middle of the pack of NFL QBs, and the Jaguars taking off.

I don’t like to talk about injuries in this space often because that’s an obvious worst-case scenario for every team. However, we have to acknowledge that the Jaguars’ defense had some great injury luck last season. A major injury or two this season might knock that unit back a bit, and I don’t think the offense could make up for it. Don’t forget that last August people wanted Chad Henne to start over Blake Bortles. If we see more Bad Bortles than Good Bortles this season, and the defense takes even a slight step back, the Jaguars could find themselves fighting with the Texans and Titans for the division. That’s a steep drop from being on the verge of a Super Bowl.

It’s hard to get over the fact that the Jaguars, for a few moments, had a 90 percent chance to make a Super Bowl and couldn’t close the deal. That’s tough to bounce back from. It could be motivation (“Now, coming out here with these guys, you can still see they’re angry and they have a lot to prove,” receiver Donte Moncrief, signed in the offseason, told the team’s site), but it’s tough to reach those heights again. The Jaguars are built to win in the regular season, when their great defense can make up for the bad days by the offense over 16 games. But the offensive inconsistency will cost them in a single-elimination playoff situation. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to think of the Jaguars as a Super Bowl favorite, no matter how close they got last season.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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