Despite having the exact opposite records as one another, the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers are two of the hottest NFL teams heading into Week 16.
With last week’s 45-7 thrashing of the Texans, the Jaguars have already secured a spot in the playoffs and are now in search of their very first AFC South title since the league realigned in 2002 – and it’s theirs as long as they win on Sunday (or the Titans lose).
On the other sideline... well, I challenge you to name three players on the 49ers roster coming into the 2017 season.
Okay, Carlos Hyde... Eric Reid, maybe?! And, uh... that’s what I thought.
This season was always going to be a rebuilding one (albeit two years too late) for the 49ers. But now, even after starting 0-9, there is a glimmer of hope shimmering in the Bay Area – and after three straight wins, that hope is Jimmy Garoppolo (above, right).
Jacksonville vs. San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 24 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Jaguars -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Blake Bortles is good. Sort of? Maybe?
A sentence I was positive I would never type in my life: Blake Bortles has been playing really well lately.
Well, at least for the last half of this season, anyway. In the last five games, Bortles has only thrown one interception compared to eight touchdowns and is completing 65 percent of his passes, which is six percent higher than his career average. He’s had just one game thus far in which he’s thrown more picks than touchdowns. Not bad for the guy who threw 51 interceptions in his first three seasons.
While we are quick to point to the Jaguars’ outstanding defense and running attack as reasons for their unexpected turnaround — and rightfully so — we would be remiss if we didn’t at least acknowledge that Bortles has remembered what team he plays for when he drops back to pass.
All jokes aside and despite what Jadeveon Clowney says (especially after a 45-7 thrashing), Bortles is not “trash.” He still may not be the guy you want calling the shots on a two-minute drill in a playoff game in New England, and he honestly may not even be on the Jaguars’ roster next season. But cut the guy some slack, he’s not that bad and he’s been getting the job done. In fact, he is a big part of why the Jags are one win away from their first-ever AFC South title.
His footwork has improved in the pocket, you can actually see him read defenses at the line of scrimmage, and he is fitting balls into windows like we have never seen him do before. I’m not saying the guy is an MVP candidate or the next Peyton Manning... or even the next Trent Dilfer. But, remember, both Manning and Dilfer won Super Bowls as quarterbacks playing with great defenses, while playing at a level far less superior than Bortles is right now.
Good for you, Blake.
2. The new QB in the Bay Area
The NFL world was taken aback when the backup quarterback from New England, the heir apparent to Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, was shipped westward to San Francisco on Halloween for a 2018 second-round pick.
After a 1-10 start, head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to go with the new guy. Good call.
Since the switch to Garoppolo from CJ Beathard (and Brian Hoyer before him), the 49ers are 3-0. But after getting battered and whooped week in and week out, the 49ers aren’t just winning games, they’re playing with moxie – just like their new quarterback.
I wonder where the new guy got all that confidence from?
Look, this isn’t me swooning over the next young, hotshot signal-caller because the game is desperate for them. Nope. That’s not it at all.
I’m also aware that three games is an extremely small sample size, but in those three games, Garoppolo has 1,026 passing yards, more than Joe Montana or Steve Young in their first three games with San Francisco.
I know, pump the brakes already! I cringed last Sunday when I overheard the game’s broadcasters mention Garoppolo’s name in the same sentence as Montana.
Comparisons aside, Garoppolo has shown that he has all the tools to be a successful starting quarterback: quick, accurate throws, poise in the pocket, putting balls where only his receivers can get them, and, perhaps most importantly, swagger. The question is, can he do it consistently enough to be the 49ers’ next franchise signal-caller?
Go back and watch the film from the final two-minute drive in last week’s last-second win over the Titans. Jimmy G. is nothing but cool in the face of pressure, knowing the exact game plan and where all of his receivers were supposed to be and when, as he did whatever he wanted against Tennessee’s defense.
Ask his teammates and they’ll for the most part say the same thing, that the new guy is “calm.” Let’s see how calm Jimmy G. will be with his first huge test as he faces the league’s top scoring defense.
3. No Fournette, no problem
As big a hand as Bortles has ad in Jacksonville’s success this season, the consistent production from the Jaguars’ running game cannot be overlooked.
Leonard Fournette has shown he can be a monster running the ball and will likely find himself receiving votes for AP Offensive Rookie of the Year with five 100-yard games to his credit already and him knocking on the door of a 1,000-yard season. Fournette has also been noticeably banged up, missing three games thus far. However, the Jags haven’t missed a beat without him.
In fact, according to ESPN.com’s Michael DiRocco, the Jags are averaging almost 12 rushing yards more per game when Fournette is out of the lineup and a running back by committee approach takes over. In Fournette’s three-game absence, T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and Corey Grant have combined for 443 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Fournette missed last week against the Texans, and Jacksonville still ran for 138 yards and a score in the 38-point thumping of Houston.
Fournette is once again listed as questionable for Sunday because of his lingering quad issue, but even if he doesn’t play, San Francisco’s 22nd-ranked run defense will still probably have its hands full.
It’s almost surreal to say it aloud after a decade of losing football, but the Jaguars look like a well-balanced team, on both sides of the ball. They’ve got the makings of a team that could actually pull an upset of a top seed in the playoffs — something they aren’t too far away from being, if the chips fall in their favor. And as much fun as Jimmy Garoppolo has been to watch these last few weeks, the defenses he’s faced don’t measure up to Jacksonville. I like the 49ers to keep it close at home, but ultimately the Jags will prevail and pick up their 11th win of the season.
Prediction: Jaguars 20, 49ers 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.