Something that perhaps got lost in the shuffle last night, as everybody attempted to process The Tie That Wasn’t and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ subsequent back-dooring into the postseason, is that none of it would have been possible without the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Steelers’ lives did indeed depend on the Raiders and Chargers not being deadlocked after 70 minutes of football, they also, much earlier in the day, required unlikely assistance from the Jags in their season finale against the Indianapolis Colts.
I don’t need to tell you that relying on the Jaguars to provide anything but cringe comedy and early draft picks is a fool’s game, and at the start of the day, that up-for-grabs playoff spot was the Colts’ to lose. But somehow, on an afternoon where a handful of Jags fans literally dressed as clowns to protest the horrendous state of the franchise, Jacksonville picked up a decisive victory, just their third of the year, against a superior team that in theory should have been trying much, much harder than them. In the third quarter, as the Jaguars took a 23-3 lead ahead of their eventual 26-11 victory, it became obvious in Baltimore that—well, barring a tie, hahaha—the Steelers had entered a win-and-in situation. The Colts, meanwhile, had to sit dumbfounded on their asses, wondering how Jacksonville managed to pull the rug out from underneath them.
“[I] never expected to be sitting here at this moment right now, not like this,” Colts coach Frank Reich said after the game.
The Jaguars’ disruptive victory, which gave the Colts their second critical loss in as many games, is of the inexplicable variety, as a team that had just been whupped 50-10 in New England decided somehow to take down the white flag and play their best football game of the year when they could have just packed it in. At the start of maybe his most promising game yet as a pro, Jags QB Trevor Lawrence took advantage of soft Colts coverage to go 8-for-8 through the air for 83 yards and an opening-drive TD. The 13-3 score at halftime could have even been much worse, as the Jags had to settle for field goals twice while inside the five. But a fumble on a Carson Wentz sack to open the third quarter led to three more points, and an ugly interception soon after helped create the touchdown that really broke this game open, as Lawrence brilliantly saved a high snap and miraculously found Marvin Jones in the back of the end zone for the score.
Jacksonville’s early lead was a huge key in this game, as it forced the Colts to rely significantly more on a shaky Wentz than on their all-world running back Jonathan Taylor. But even though Taylor had a fairly efficient 77 yards on 15 rushes, the Jags defense did an excellent job of stopping the Indy rushing attack at the game’s most critical junctures. In the first quarter, with the Colts facing fourth-and-2 at the Jags’ 42, Taylor was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. And when the Colts were trying desperately to get back within reach, down by 20 early in the final quarter, Taylor was swarmed at the goal line on fourth down and could not score.
“It’s a bad feeling,” Wentz said after the game. “Knowing that we were in control of our destiny the last two weeks and didn’t get it done. Definitely left a bad taste in my mouth, a lot of guys’ mouth. Not what we expected. We expected to finish stronger than we did. A bad, bad feeling.”
Though this game was nothing but pain for Indianapolis and elation for Pittsburgh, for more neutral observers, the struggle that was both the Colts’ loss and the Steelers’ bumbling victory cast some light on an issue that might rear its head in these first few playoff games. Amid all their hype about the king-sized expanded postseason weekend on the horizon, the NFL must be hoping their fans forget or ignore the most obvious downside to expanding the playoffs to seven teams in each division: Most years, that seventh team is going to be kind of shitty.
On the NFC side, the Eagles have won their way into an extra game exclusively by handling business and beating the league’s bottom tier, going 0-6 against playoff teams in the regular season and 9-2 against everybody else. On the AFC side, watching the Steelers crawl down the field four yards at a time, completely fail to contain the run, and just barely outscore a backup quarterback who turned the ball over thrice could not have convinced anybody that they will look competitive when they meet the Chiefs in the first round. But the alternative would have been a team that was just boatraced by the Jacksonville Jaguars.