Jaguars collapse down stretch after controlling own destiny, Titans 28-20 victory the final nail as Steelers claim last Wild Card spot
The Jacksonville Jaguars entered the 2023 season with high hopes after a surprise AFC South title and playoff berth last year. Led by second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Super Bowl winning head coach Doug Pederson, the Jags controlled their own playoff destiny with two weeks left in the season. But a shocking stretch run collapse precipitated by Sunday’s 28-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans has now crushed those dreams and ended Jacksonville’s year, allowing the Pittsburgh Steelers to improbably claim the AFC’s last Wild Card spot instead.
Jaguars Set Up for Deep Playoff Run Before Costly Late Season Slide
The Jaguars roared out of the gate this year, scoring over 30 points in four of their first five contests. Despite some midseason struggles against stout defenses, Jacksonville was 8-8 and controlled the AFC South entering Week 17. Holding the division tiebreaker over the Titans meant just one more win would secure a playoff spot.
Trevor Lawrence enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign, increasing his yards per attempt by over two full yards while cutting his interception rate in half. Travis Etienne showed why he was a first round pick by totaling 1,441 yards from scrimmage. Jacksonville’s defense also took a big leap forward, pressuring quarterbacks at the league’s second highest rate. This was a more complete team that seemed poised for a deep January run.
Jags fans allowed themselves to dream big entering the season’s final two weeks. A home victory over Houston in Week 17 would extend their season, potentially setting up a massive winner-take-all primetime showdown with Tennessee to decide the division crown.
|Trevor Lawrence Touchdown Passes
|Trevor Lawrence Interceptions
|Travis Etienne Yards From Scrimmage
“When you have a chance to win and solidify a home playoff game, you expect to do that,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “We’re obviously disappointed, but we still control our destiny next week. We have another opportunity.”
Unfortunately, things quickly spiraled out of control instead.
Season on the Brink After Costly Week 17 Upset Loss
Facing a battered 4-win Texans squad already looking ahead to the draft, the red hot Jaguars were two touch down favorites in Week 17 and understandably looked past their lowly opponent. That proved to be an almost fatal mistake. Jacksonville sleepwalked through the first half en route to an embarrassing 30-3 road loss.
“I’m frustrated, I’m disappointed, I’m mad, I’m angry,” said a solemn Doug Pederson after the game. “My heart hurts because of the way we played today.”
Though still in position to recover, the Jags loss meant winning the following week’s rematch against division rival Tennessee now became an absolute must just to qualify for the expanded playoffs. The Week 17 defeat also kept the surprise 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers squarely in contention for that same final Wild Card spot.
Having already split with the Titans earlier in the year, Jacksonville could still take the AFC South by handling business at home against a team resting several starters for the postseason. But their meltdown in Houston left zero margin for error.
Most believed the Jaguars had too much talent to miss out, especially with the Titans opting to protect key players for their first round bye hopes instead. All Jacksonville needed was one win in their raucous home stadium. But in a twist of cruel fate, the Jaguars would face plant in spectacular fashion with their whole season on the line.
Jags Capitulate Down Stretch as Titans Deliver Knockout Punch
In front of a sold out crowd ready to celebrate, the Jaguars came out flat once again while Tennessee played loose and aggressive. The Titans jumped ahead 14-7 early behind two scores from little used running back Tyjae Spears. Jacksonville briefly steadied the ship with a Travis Etienne rushing score to tie it up by halftime, but red flags remained.
Trevor Lawrence’s uneven play continued as the former top pick completed just 58% of his throws with two turnovers against a banged up secondary. The Jags also committed 10 penalties and struggled up front, allowing Tennessee’s patchwork offensive line to bully them for 198 yards on the ground.
Still, despite not playing their best and Tennessee clearly winning in the trenches, Jacksonville clawed within one score in the fourth quarter. Backed up at their own 2-yard line and needing a mere 15 yards for the go-ahead field goal, Lawrence had one last golden opportunity to lead his team to victory and salvage their crumbling playoff dreams.
Instead, two plays later he was intercepted on an inaccurate throw over the middle as the Jaguars gave the ball right back to Tennessee in plus territory. Jacksonville’s defense gamely held on a long Derrick Henry run to force 4th and inches at their 20-yard line, but Ryan Tannehill collapsed the pocket on a QB sneak to ice the game with under two minutes remaining.
The Jaguars last gasp drive then ended in disaster, as Lawrence couldn’t punch the ball in on a quarterback draw from the 1-yard line on 4th down to turn it over on downs and ignite a Tennessee celebration.
When time expired moments later and the Titans’ stunning 28-20 upset was official, the NFL’s longest playoff drought extending franchise watched in disbelief as their first back-to-back postseason berth in 21 years slipped agonizingly out of reach.
Steeler Surge Sends Jacksonville Home After 6-Win Improvement
While the Jaguars lockers were dead silent post game, raucous cheers rang out from Pittsburgh’s where a still stunned Steelers team rode a second half turnaround all the way to January football. After starting 2-6, Mike Tomlin rallied his undermanned squad to an 8-2 finish including four straight must wins to end the year tied with Jacksonville at 9-8.
And thanks to pummeling the Cleveland Browns 28-14 on a sloppy field in Week 18 while the shellshocked Jaguars crumbled, Pittsburgh finished alone in seventh place in the AFC and claimed the conference’s third and final Wild Card spot. They’ll travel to AFC South Champion Houston next weekend.
Jacksonville meanwhile is left with nothing but regret after their 6-win improvement still came up one victory short. This franchise has now agonizingly missed the playoffs on tiebreakers four straight years, leaving this collapse as perhaps their most painful one yet.
“We just didn’t put it all together these last two weeks. And it’s unfortunate with what was at stake,” lamented Coach Pederson. “Give Tennessee credit, they played well and were clearly ready to go. But we made too many critical mistakes and just didn’t match their intensity. It’s on all of us.”
Long Offseason Looms After Worst Collapse in Franchise History
While Jacksonville clearly took a big step forward and still has a bright future, this loss is sure to stain the Jags for years. Blowing a golden playoff opportunity with consecutive losses to underdog Houston and Tennessee is arguably the worst late season swoon in franchise history.
Trevor Lawrence in particular will face heavy scrutiny after coming up small down the stretch with 4 interceptions and just 2 touchdowns over the last three must win games. Though he showed improvement, Lawrence’s turnover issues reemerging when it mattered most paired with too many rookie mental errors leaves real questions if he’s cut out to be a franchise savior.
The coming months will be filled with speculation on coaching staff changes while the front office looks to plug roster holes at receiver and the interior defensive line. They’ll also likely evaluate quarterback options in case Lawrence’s development stalls further.
After finally returning to relevance, the rapid descent over the last two weeks means Jacksonville is again headed for an early draft pick and facing hard truths about identity. For this young squad, maturity and leadership will now be put to the test as frustration sets in from seeing a golden opportunity devastatingly slip away.
“Losing sucks no matter what the circumstances are, but this one is really going to burn,” said second year running back Travis Etienne. “We have the offseason to figure out how we bounce back, but right now its just time to soak in this pain and use it as motivation going forward.”
As the Jaguars know all too well, January feels especially cold watching others compete for a Lombardi trophy instead. After last year’s remarkable turnaround and return to playoff football, Jacksonville is left searching for answers as their 2023 ended in an all too familiar disappointment. This franchise has been on the cusp too many times now, and must find a way to get over the hump if they hope to deliver a title that their passionate fan base so desperately craves.
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