Jaguars increase playoff hopes behind smothering protection

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was supposed to be a duel between quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the top two picks of the 2021 draft. In the end, the Jaguars’ defense was the star.

The Jaguars limited the Jets to 227 yards and forced two turnovers. Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick, couldn’t get the New York Jets‘ offense on track and was replaced in the third quarter by backup Chris Streveler. The Jaguars beat the Jets 19-3.

The Jaguars’ playoff odds improved to 51% with the win, according to ESPN Analytics.

The Jaguars are surging and — as surprising as it seems — are two games away from potentially winning the AFC South and making the playoffs.

That was unthinkable when the Jaguars flew back from London after losing to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 30. That was their fifth consecutive loss. They’ve lost twice since, and Thursday night was their third victory in a row, the first time they’ve won three in a row since Weeks 13-15 of 2017.

They did it by dominating one of the league’s best defenses. The Jets were allowing 299.1 yards per game, and the Jaguars nearly reached that by halftime (251 yards). The Jaguars finished with 368 yards, the second-most yards the Jets have allowed all season. The defense did have some trouble when the Jets benched Wilson for Streveler in the second half, but they allowed just 66 yards in the first half after entering the game averaging 200 yards allowed in the first half, the third most in the NFL.

The Jaguars (7-8) now trail the Tennessee Titans (7-7) by a half-game and could take over the division lead if the Titans lose at home to the Houston Texans on Saturday. The Titans have lost four games in a row and play the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.

The Jaguars and Titans end the regular season in Jacksonville in a game that could be for the division title and a playoff berth.

Promising trend: Tight end Evan Engram had a breakout performance two games ago against Tennessee with 11 catches for 162 yards and two TDs and he has been a major part of the offense since. He had seven catches for 113 against the Jets and now has 68 catches this season, which is a single-season franchise record for a tight end. Twenty-six of his catches and 337 of his 723 yards have come in the past three games. The Jaguars are getting him the ball with short, quick passes and letting him run after the catch. Engram had 95 yards after the catch against the Jets and now has 444 yards after the catch this season.

Pivotal play: The Jets had a chance to get some early momentum after recovering Lawrence’s fumble on the Jaguars’ 16-yard line, but Jaguars safety Andre Cisco sacked Wilson for an 8-yard loss and that forced the Jets to settle for a field goal. When the Jaguars blitz a safety, it’s usually Rayshawn Jenkins, so Cisco coming caught the Jets off guard and he was untouched. It was the first time Cisco has hit a quarterback all season. Even though the Jets scored points, not giving up a touchdown was a boost for a defense that gave up 34 points last week.

Underrated statistic to know: The last time Lawrence played in rainy and windy conditions like he faced Thursday night, he turned the ball over five times, including losing four fumbles, in a loss at Philadelphia in Week 4. So naturally ball security was a big priority this week. Things got off to a shaky start when Lawrence was sacked and fumbled on the game’s third play, but the Jaguars didn’t turn the ball over again (though Travis Etienne nearly fumbled later in the first half). The Jaguars are now 6-2 in games this season in which they have a positive or even turnover ratio. — Michael DiRocco

Next game: at Texans (1 p.m. ET, Jan. 1)

New York Jets

Wilson hit a new low Thursday night. Not only was he booed off the field in MetLife Stadium, but he was replaced and upstaged by a former practice-squad quarterback in Streveler.

The Jets (7-8) all but ruined their playoff hopes with the loss, but the big story was Wilson’s flameout. It’s fair to wonder if has played his last game with the Jets.

In a virtual must-win, Wilson played down to his pre-benching level, completing only nine of 18 passes for 92 yards and one interception (a long heave at the end of the first half). He needs a re-reset, but it will be tough to come back from this.

Looking to spark the running game, coach Robert Saleh pulled Wilson with 3:31 left in the third quarter, down 16-3. It was supposed to be a temporary “change of pace,” Saleh said, but it spoke volumes that he rode Streveler for the rest of the game.

Streveler, elevated from the practice squad before the game, provided instant energy as he ran a college-style, zone-read offense. The crowd roared, as Wilson stood on the sideline, seemingly waiting to return. He never did. Streveler, a preseason hero, didn’t put any points on the board, but his performance shined a light on the Jets’ wild quarterback situation.

Quite simply, the team responded better to Streveler than to Wilson. It was the same when Mike White (fractured ribs) was in the lineup. What does that say?

Troubling trend: The Jets accomplished their goal of playing meaningful games in December, but they’ve lost them all — the first four-game losing streak of the Saleh era. They have a 6% chance of making the postseason for the first time in 12 years, per ESPN Analytics. The season looked so promising a month ago, but their hopes were undermined by the quarterback circus and the inability to generate much offense. They’ve scored only 32 points in the past three games, hardly playoff worthy.

Describe the game in two words: Typical Jets. When it comes to prime time, they’re good for a no-show. This was their eighth straight prime-time loss, the NFL’s longest active streak. They’ve dropped 19 of their past 25, dating to the “Butt Fumble” in 2012. When the lights come up, the Jets shrink.

Biggest hole in the game plan: In monsoon-like conditions, against a vulnerable front seven, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur leaned too heavily on the passing game in the first half. The Jets ran only five times for 4 yards in the first half, putting too much on Wilson’s plate. A quarterback’s best friend, especially a struggling quarterback, is the running game. It hasn’t been the same for a month, as the aging offensive line has lost its punch.

Bold prediction for next week: If White is cleared for contact, he will return to the lineup in Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks. It’s a no-brainer, really. If he’s not cleared, does Saleh go with Wilson? Joe Flacco? Streveler? He has a mini-bye to mull his choices. — Rich Cimini

Underrated statistic to know: Wilson’s deepest completion Thursday was 7 air yards, and he was 0-of-5 with an interception on throws of 10 or more air yards.

Next game: at Seahawks (4:05 p.m. ET, Jan. 1)

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