I'm not afraid to admit when I am wrong, and I was wrong about the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Entering the season I said they were a team no one would want to play late in the year. They're actually a team no one wants to play now.
Owners of the league's worst record the past two seasons, the Jaguars followed up a 24-0 whipping of the Colts with a 38-10 spanking of the Chargers on Sunday in SoFi Stadium, putting together back-to-back victories for the first time since October 2019 and serving notice that they're no longer a "gimmie" on the schedule.
Yes, they beat an Indianapolis team that was breaking in a new quarterback and down its defensive captain; and, yes, Los Angeles finished the game without at least five starters -- three of which didn't play at all due to injury -- and had quarterback Justin Herbert playing with fractured rib cartilage.
But the outcomes were not about what Jacksonville's opponents did not have; they were about what the Jaguars do have, namely good players and good coaches. The latter cannot be overstated after the disaster that was Urban Meyer.
The former Ohio State coach never connected with the players in his one season in Jacksonville. At times he acted like he would rather be anywhere but with the team, once staying behind for personal reasons while the team flew home following a loss.
Doug Pederson is the anti-Meyer -- a proven, Super Bowl-winning coach who is creating a culture in which success is to be expected, not hoped for.
"I'm just so proud of these guys," Pederson told reporters after the game. "The way they work during the week, they're beginning to see just what it takes to win in this league. It takes the hard work and preparation. They're starting to come together as a football team and that's all I can ask for. They played extremely hard. What I told them after the game is that if they continue to do these little things right, good things can happen to this football team. Today was an example of that."
All the talent the Jaguars have stockpiled through high draft picks, as well as the record dollars they've spent in free agency the past two seasons, finally are paying off. Pederson has quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft, reminding people why he was viewed as a generational talent coming out of Clemson. Lawrence only figures to get better. Even more important is that the defense has refused to play in the shadow of the offense. The unit, which includes 2022 No. 1 overall draft pick Travon Walker, has allowed just 10 points total the past two weeks. It's apparent that the players are starting to feed off each other. They are expecting to win, not hoping to win, which is a testament to their most important offseason addition: Pederson.
Some other thoughts on the AFC after yet another chaotic week within the conference:
The Dolphins were notoriously slow starters the previous three seasons, opening 0-7, 1-3 and 1-7, respectively. But thanks to key additions in the offseason, including wideout Tyreek Hill and left tackle Terron Armstead, the maturing of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and continued playmaking on defense, the Dolphins now rank as the team to beat in the conference.
I realize it’s early, but Sunday they held off the Buffalo Bills, who had outscored their first two opponents (Rams and Titans) by a combined 72-17. Many had the Bills as their preseason favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, if not win the game outright, so losing a head-to-head matchup to Miami makes the Dolphins the conference front-runner -- at this point.
The Bills were being crowned after routing the Rams and Titans, but Sunday showed they bleed like everyone else when cut. Injuries, turnovers and suspect clock management all figured in the loss to the Dolphins, as did the heat index that exceeded 100 degrees on the field. There is no reason to lower expectations for the Bills, but Sunday was a reminder that there are no givens.
The Chargers might have the most talented roster on paper, but games are won and lost on the field. Sure, L.A. is dealing with a rash of injuries, but calling their loss to the Jaguars a fluke would be disrespectful to the up-and-coming Jaguars operation.
L.A. entered Sunday's matchup without center Corey Linsley, wideout Keenan Allen and cornerback J.C. Jackson, then lost edge rusher Joey Bosa and left tackle Rashawn Slater to injuries during the game. The biggest concern, though, is Herbert. If he’s not right -- and he appeared off with the rib injury -- the Chargers will have a difficult time living up to expectations.
The only surprise here is that quarterback Lamar Jackson has been even better than anticipated -- and the expectations were extremely high for him. He has accounted for 12 touchdowns, including 10 passing, and has been in complete control when the moment demands, such as in Sunday’s 37-26 win over New England when he led the Ravens on a 73-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Jackson and the team could not come to terms on a contract extension before the start of the season, so with every strong performance, he increases his leverage when the sides resume negotiations next offseason. If Baltimore can get its defense up to speed, it will be a tough playoff out.
Seemingly no one had the Bengals opening the campaign 0-2 after reaching last season’s Super Bowl, but that’s where they found themselves entering Sunday's game against the Jets. A sense of normalcy returned for the team, with its 27-12 win over New York, but it’s still too early to say that everything is OK in Cincinnati. We need a larger sample size, and improved play from Joe Burrow, one of the game’s top young quarterbacks.
The Raiders still are searching for an identity under new coach Josh McDaniels -- unless you consider their identity to be a team that can’t get out of its own way. With so much talent at the skill positions, the offense always seems to be a play away from making a statement. Quarterback Derek Carr admits that he’s still trying to execute the offense as McDaniels wants it, but, in the meantime, there are growing pains and little margin for error.
That’s part of what made Sunday’s 24-22 loss to the Titans so painful. Darren Waller, one of the NFL's top tight ends and the recent recipient of a big-money extension, arguably played one of his worst games since joining the team. He appeared lackadaisical on a deep incompletion, putting up one hand for the ball when it looked like he could have made the catch with two. He also had a ball bounce off his hands near the goal line, resulting in a Tennessee interception. And, finally, he deflected a pass in the end zone that appeared to be targeted for Davante Adams. If any of those go the other way, perhaps the Raiders are 1-2 instead of 0-3.
Defensively, the Raiders surrendered touchdowns on each of their first three series on Sunday. The team has allowed at least 24 points in every game, including 29 after halftime against Arizona, squandering a 20-point lead in the overtime defeat. Each of their losses has been by one score, but close defeats is not the reason McDaniels was brought to Las Vegas. Wins were. There is time to get better, but it’s getting late early.
The perception was that the Browns simply wanted to hold on until quarterback Deshaun Watson returns from his 11-game suspension. But they are doing more than that. They are 2-1 and easily could be 3-0 if not for poor late-game management by coach Kevin Stefanski in a 31-30 loss to the Jets in Week 2. With their next three against teams that are all currently 1-2 (Falcons, Chargers, Patriots) they could legitimately be in the playoff hunt when Watson returns.