Last Sunday, in their most resounding victory of the season — and maybe the past decade — the Jacksonville Jaguars completed eight passes. Total. To reach that comically low number, their quarterback, Blake Bortles, threw the ball just 14 times. He finished with 95 yards. And still, the Jaguars put up 30 points, pounding a possible Pittsburgh playoff team into submission in the Steelers’ own stadium.
Jacksonville’s road victory was just the second time in five seasons an NFL team won a game with eight or fewer completions. In this golden age of passing, teams simply don’t win with that little help from their quarterback. But for the Jaguars, who have been waiting 15 years for someone — ANYONE! — to fill Mark Brunell’s shoes, it was further proof that perhaps you don’t need a great signal caller to win in the NFL today. Maybe, just maybe, you could even win with a bad one.
For years, NFL teams have operated under the impression that nothing is more important to the success of a franchise than finding a quarterback. The Jaguars have given that philosophy a shot. They drafted Bortles third overall in the 2014 draft, 30 picks ahead of Derek Carr. They declared him their franchise quarterback and gave him every chance to take hold of that position. Over his past two seasons, only a handful of quarterbacks have passed the ball more.
As we’ve learned since that draft, though, Bortles happens to be objectively bad at quarterback. He’s completing 54 percent of his passes this season, down from his career-high last year of 58 percent. He’s prone to back-breaking mistakes and rarely makes tough throws. Even his own receivers couldn’t help but rip him during the preseason.
The Jaguars hired Doug Marrone this offseason to fix their quarterback problem, and, through five weeks, he has done so by ignoring its existence entirely. The Jaguars offense has channeled all of its energy into keeping the ball out of its quarterback’s hands.
Last season, the Jaguars threw the ball an average of 39.1 times per game. That number is down to 27.4 this season — tied for lowest in the NFL — as Marrone made the wise choice of making rookie battering ram Leonard Fournette the focal point of the offense. As Bortles’ pass attempts have plummeted, no running back has more carries (106) this season than Fournette, who, at 230 pounds, hit 22 mph while taking a 90-yard touchdown to the house last week. Week after week, he continues to steamroll defenders, literally beckoning them to attempt to try bringing him down.
But Fournette, as great as he is, isn’t even the main reason the Jaguars rank fifth in points per game in spite of a quarterback who, at times, has made fans long for the halcyon days of Blaine Gabbert.
The Jaguars defense is currently playing at a historically great level. Through five weeks, the Jaguars lead the NFL in sacks (20), interceptions (10), and defensive touchdowns (4). No defense has managed that trifecta of early-season numbers since the 1984 season. Already, the Jaguars defense has forced more turnovers than five entire teams forced in 2016.
Those eye-popping defensive numbers are destined for regression, of course. But could the Jaguars be onto something here? With the best point differential in the NFL, their strategy of avoiding Bortles at all costs is has been successful thus far, but how long can their quarterback-less joy ride really last?
The Jaguars aren’t exactly pioneers in this sense. Football teams have won without viable quarterbacks before. The Ravens won it all with a legendary defense and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Peyton Manning was downright terrible in 2015 when the Broncos marched to a Super Bowl, thanks to a possessed pass rush and the league’s best secondary.
Those are the exceptions, of course. Not the rule. Marrone knows he’s challenging long-held convention in the NFL that great quarterback play is crucial to success. But Bortles, he says, has done his job well enough to win.
“Everything that we’ve asked of him, he’s delivered on,” Marrone said this week.
They’ve only asked the bare minimum thus far. Still, through five weeks of Jacksonville keeping the ball out of his hands, Blake Bortles looks more and more like he could be quarterbacking a contender — a sentence that’s still difficult to write without laughter.
Would the Jaguars be better with a different quarterback? Sure. But if you’re winning games with just eight completed passes and 95 yards, chances are you’re doing something else right.
THE WEEK 6 FORECAST
LAST WEEK AGAINST THE SPREAD: 8-6
SEASON RECORD: 31-45-1
TEAMS ON BYE: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Seattle
CLEVELAND AT HOUSTON
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Death. Taxes. The Browns falling apart in the first month of the season. Cleveland’s optimism over its young quarterback, DeShone Kizer, has now officially dried up, thanks to his nine interceptions in five games. Kevin Hogan could very well be starting under center this week, and across the field, he’ll have the hottest quarterback in the NFL with which to contend. Deshaun Watson could’ve been a Brown, but Cleveland passed, and oh boy, are they going to regret it this week. While Houston has lost two of its defensive stalwarts — J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus — the offense has been firing on all cylinders, thanks to Watson.
Player to watch: Watson, QB. Who else? Since he was handed Houston’s starting job, he’s been one of the most exciting players in the NFL. This week, he’s up against a defense that’s made Andy Dalton and Jacoby Brissett look like top-five quarterbacks. After putting up five touchdowns against the Chiefs, who knows what he could do against the hapless Browns.
Line: Texans by 9.5
Pick: Texans, 31-17
NEW ENGLAND AT NEW YORK JETS
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Tom Brady has never quite been at his best against the Jets. His career per-game average of 237 yards and 1.5 touchdowns is relatively pedestrian, when considering how savage he has been to other NFL defenses. But Brady has never seen a Jets team like this, and while New York may boast a 3-2 record, don’t be fooled. They’ll be lucky to win more than one game the rest of the way. The Patriots took a step in the right direction on defense last week, but they’ve got a lot of ground to make up. More than likely, Brady will have to throw his way to a divisional victory in a hostile locale. It should be relatively smooth sailing.
Player to watch: Elijah McGuire, RB. Faced with an explosive offense like the Patriots, the Jets’ best hope is to hunker down and control the ball. Enter: McGuire, who has gotten more carries in recent weeks and is should be the starter with Bilal Powell ailing. The Patriots have been one of the league’s worst run defenses.
Line: Patriots by 9.5
Pick: Patriots, 30-20
MIAMI AT ATLANTA
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Outside of their home win over the Packers in September, the Falcons haven’t exactly looked like a Super Bowl contender through four games. But their bye week came at an ideal time. WR Julio Jones is good to go, and with a week off, the rest of the offense should be fresh and refocused. Nothing helps a team get on track quite like playing the Dolphins and their depressing offense. Miami has only scored 22 points over its last three games, as it’s become crystal clear Jay Cutler should’ve been left in the broadcast booth. The Falcons should roll in this home, dome matchup.
Player to watch: Matt Ryan, QB. Ryan was legitimately struggling before the bye week, with five interceptions in his last two games. He has just one game this season of two or more passing touchdowns. For the Falcons to come anywhere close to reaching their offensive potential from last season, Ryan needs to turn things around.
Line: Falcons by 12.5
Pick: Falcons, 27-16
DETROIT AT NEW ORLEANS
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Before last Sunday, the narrative surrounding the Lions was that they were just one foot away from an undefeated opening month. Now, after a loss to the Panthers, the bandwagon has emptied fast. The Lions defense took a bit of a step back in that Carolina game, and losing nose tackle Haloti Ngata for the season certainly hurts. But this team likely falls somewhere in the middle of its hot-and-cold expectations, and this matchup is not a good one to have at such a critical juncture. The Saints went into the bye at the worst possible time, with everything starting to click. Still, Drew Brees doesn’t lose his rhythm with just a week off, and the exit of Adrian Peterson might actually make the once-crowded Saints rushing attack better. This game should be close throughout.
Player to watch: Alvin Kamara, RB.
Line: Saints by 4.5
Pick: Saints, 31-24
GREEN BAY AT MINNESOTA
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: The Vikings are who we thought they would be on defense, allowing less than 19 points per game this season. Unfortunately for Minnesota, so is Aaron Rodgers. Even if the yardage isn’t quite there lately, Rodgers has still been his elite self, with seven touchdowns in his last two games. He hasn’t had to face a secondary like the Vikings’ unit yet, but doubt Rodgers at your own risk. The Vikings offense, meanwhile, will rely on Case Keenum and Jerick McKinnon to keep it afloat. Good luck with that.
Player to watch: Xavier Rhodes, CB. One of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Rhodes has continued to prove his dominance this season. Through five games, he’s allowed opposing receivers to catch just 12 of 24 targets for 165 yards and zero touchdowns. He’ll be crucial in shutting down one of the Packers wideouts, likely Jordy Nelson.
Line: Packers by 3
Pick: Packers, 28-20
CHICAGO AT BALTIMORE
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Both of these teams are classic examples of why your record doesn’t always indicate your talent level. The Bears are 1-4, but with an improving and underrated defense. The Ravens are 3-2, but look as though they could fall apart at any minute on offense. A rookie quarterback against the Ravens defense ultimately gives Baltimore the nod here, but by no means will Joe Flacco and Co. roll to a victory. Considering Flacco’s yards per attempt is among the lowest in the league (5.7), moving the ball down the field this week and going forward remains a glaring question for the overrated Ravens.
Player to watch: Akiem Hicks, DT. Hicks has been one of the more impressive defensive linemen in the NFL through five weeks, and against the Vikings last week, he was absolutely dominant, racking up two sacks as he terrorized the Minnesota line. The Bears front could have a field day with Flacco.
Line: Ravens by 6.5
Pick: Ravens, 19-17
SAN FRANCISCO AT WASHINGTON
Kickoff: 10 a.m.
Outlook: Kirk Cousins’ current team welcomes Kirk Cousins’ future team for a game even Kirk Cousins would rather not watch. It still feels too early to believe in Washington, but the bar is low this week with San Francisco on tap. The 49ers have hung around in pretty much every game, but actual wins have been hard to come by. Kyle Shanahan still has a long ways to go to have the 49ers competing, but it’s hard to envision this game as a blowout. Unless, of course, Cousins takes this opportunity to go wild in front of his once-and-future head coach.
Player to watch: Pierre Garcon, WR. A classic revenge game for Garcon, who was Washington’s most reliable wideout for years. Brian Hoyer is no Cousins, though, and Garcon’s week-to-week ceiling has been limited as a result. He’ll no doubt be motivated for this game.
Line: Washington by 10.5
Pick: Washington, 24-17
LOS ANGELES RAMS AT JACKSONVILLE
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m.
Outlook: No quarterback, no problem. Blake Bortles might only pass the ball a dozen times in this game, but if the Rams can’t slow down Leonard Fournette, it won’t matter how bad Bortles happens to be. Fournette has been a force, and he should touch the ball at least 25 times again. The Rams’ strategy won’t be all that different. The Jaguars boast the best pass defense in the league, with two potential Pro Bowl corners in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, but they’ve been atrocious against the run. That should mean plenty of opportunity for Todd Gurley, assuming Rams coach Sean McVay doesn’t turn away from him again, as he did last week.
Player to watch: Gurley, RB. Gurley had only 14 carries last week, and if that happens again, don’t expect this week’s trip to Jacksonville to be a positive one for the Rams. With Jared Goff likely to struggle navigating the league’s best secondary, a heavy dose of Gurley is the Rams’ best bet.
Line: Jaguars by 2.5
Pick: Rams, 23-21
TAMPA BAY AT ARIZONA
Kickoff: 1:05 pm
Outlook: As soon as we were ready to bury Carson Palmer, he strings together three decent weeks that make him look like the Palmer of old. Don’t buy that hype just yet, but this week, Palmer has a good chance to keep the good times going. The Bucs have struggled mightily against opposing quarterbacks this season; only the Patriots have allowed more yards per game through the air. But with Doug Martin returning to form in Tampa Bay’s backfield, the Bucs should have an improved offense of their own to match Palmer and Co. This game could come down to mistakes made by either quarterback.
Player to watch: Adrian Peterson, RB. The Cardinals acquired Peterson in a trade with the Saints earlier this week and immediately cut Chris Johnson, which bodes well for Peterson’s role. But as Arizona coach Bruce Arians made clear earlier this week, Peterson is no third-down back, and with his role limited to 1st and 2nd down, his ceiling is lower than you might expect in Arizona’s offense.
Line: Bucs by 1.5
Pick: Bucs, 26-20
PITTSBURGH AT KANSAS CITY
Kickoff: 1:25 pm
Outlook: Are Ben Roethlisberger’s best days behind him? Roethlisberger himself asked that question himself last week, following an awful performance in a loss to the Jaguars. Judging by the first month of the season, it’s getting harder to brush those questions off. This season, notwithstanding, Roethlisberger always struggles away from Heinz Field, and with the explosive Chiefs on tap, he’ll have to move the ball through the air to keep up. Alex Smith, Kareem Hunt, and Tyreek Hill just keep putting up points, week after week, and there’s no reason to think that output will slow down in this matchup.
Player to watch: Marcus Peters, CB. He may not be playing up to the level he did last season, but Peters is still a very talented on-ball corner, and with Roethlisberger struggling as he is, Peters could find himself with his share of opportunistic situations on Sunday.
Line: Chiefs by 4
Pick: Chiefs, 30-20
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS AT OAKLAND
Kickoff: 1:25 p.m.
Outlook: Their first victory last week was desperately needed, but now the Chargers are staring down the barrel of a six-week slate, complete with four or five playoff teams. The Raiders, as poorly as they’ve been playing, may be the easiest of those teams to defeat, so the Chargers can’t afford to falter here. They’ve started notoriously slow this season, trailing after one period in every single game this season. Assuming Derek Carr comes back for this game — and he’s his usual self — the Chargers would be better off not digging a huge, early hole. Philip Rivers needs a bounce-back game here in the worst way.
Player to watch: Mike Williams, WR. The Chargers’ first-round pick is likely to make his debut this week, after sitting out the first five with a back injury. There’s a reason the team drafted him in the top-10, and while the Chargers offense is full of possible targets, Williams may be the most athletic of them all. It’s a matter of time before he makes an impact.
Line: No line
Pick: Raiders, 24-19
NEW YORK GIANTS AT DENVER
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m.
Outlook: When the Giants offense takes the field on Sunday night, it may very well be forced to use a rookie tight end as its No. 1 receiver. Such is life when four of your wideouts get hurt in one game. It may not have mattered this week anyway, given how dominant the Denver secondary continues to be. The Broncos offense, on the other hand, remains a work in progress. QB Trevor Siemian is inconsistent, and C.J. Anderson is probably due for a down game. But without a single weapon on offense, New York’s offense scoring may count as a minor miracle in this one.
Player to watch: Chris Harris, Broncos CB. One of the NFL’s best at his position.
Line: Broncos by 11.5
Pick: Broncos, 24-10
INDIANAPOLIS AT TENNESSEE
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m., Monday
Outlook: Andrew Luck is still on the shelf, but the Colts finally seem to have found some momentum with their backup QB. Jacoby Brissett hasn’t set the world on fire in his tenure as Colts starting quarterback, but he isn’t Scott Tolzien. That’s for sure. Brissett, coupled with the quiet emergence of rookie running back Marlon Mack has some in Indy feeling optimistic. The Titans are less positive. Things have gone quite poorly these last few weeks, as Marcus Mariota has dealt with a hamstring injury and the defense has fallen apart. Expect an ugly game on Monday night, but with a few big plays, the Colts could pull this one out.
Player to watch: T.Y. Hilton, WR. Indy’s big-play master finally seems to be establishing a rapport with Brissett. Over his past three games, Hilton has two games of 150 yards receiving or more. The Titans secondary has been below average again this season, so Hilton should keep up his recent tear, if Brissett can get him the ball.
Line: No line
Pick: Colts, 21-18
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