AFC playoff race becoming a battle of who can stay upright

If Trevor Lawrence misses significant time, the stakes could be enormous for the Jaguars.

When Trevor Lawrence’s right ankle buckled under the foot of a teammate late in Monday night’s overtime loss to the Bengals, the entire stadium — probably all of Duval County — gasped in horror. Not this, not here, not now. A promising Jaguars season — one of the few in the franchise’s woeful history — wobbled on Lawrence’s tender ankle.

Tuesday, the word came down, and it was good, not great: a high-ankle sprain that won’t require surgery. Jags head coach Doug Pederson hasn’t ruled Lawrence out for this weekend’s game against Cleveland, but hasn’t exactly ruled him in, either.

If Lawrence misses any significant time, the stakes could be enormous. After falling in overtime to the Bengals, the Jaguars are now 8-4. They still lead the AFC South, but fell a game back of Miami and Baltimore for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Jaguars have crucial games against the Browns and Ravens in the next two weeks, and both Houston and Indianapolis lurk just one game back in the AFC South.

Every year in the NFL is a war of attrition. This year, we’ve seen multiple marquee quarterbacks go down, and their teams’ prospects with them. Aaron Rodgers. Joe Burrow. Kirk Cousins. Deshaun Watson … all lost for the season. And while you may not put, say, Anthony Richardson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Daniel Jones or Kenny Pickett in that elite class, their absence still leaves a huge hole in their respective rosters. Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr and Justin Fields were all Day 1 starters who have also missed time due to injury.

The AFC, in particular, is becoming a battle of who can stay upright. The current three wild-card teams — Cleveland, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh — are all on backup quarterbacks. If Jacksonville has to turn to C.J. Beathard for starting duties this weekend, that will leave a majority of the AFC’s leading playoff contenders without their starting signal-caller.

Who benefits from this? Houston, probably, which is currently in a statistical tie with all three of those teams. One game below Houston, Denver and Buffalo lurk, both at 6-6 and both with their starting QBs still in the game. Cincinnati is there too, and while Jake Browning’s 354-yard performance against Jacksonville kept the Bengals’ playoff hopes alive, there’s substantial question as to whether he can sustain that level of play going forward.

One of the most-repeated NFL cliches is also one of the most accurate: The greatest ability is availability. A quarterback who’s played his way into a starting role is, by default, a more attractive option for a team than a backup. A player like Lawrence — who has grown into the role of starting quarterback in a way that fellow first-rounders Zach Wilson and Trey Lance have not — has an outsized role on his team, providing not just ability but leadership. Lawrence’s calm demeanor helped Jacksonville rally from 27 points down against the Chargers last season in the playoffs, and the Jaguars will need him under center in what will be a rough playoff run for everyone involved.

Granted, it could be worse for the teams struggling through quarterback injury. They could be the New England Patriots, with two perfectly healthy but completely overmatched quarterbacks. That’s the doomsday scenario right there.