Quarterback is the most important position in football and, arguably, in all of professional sports. Few franchises embody this notion more than the two facing off this Monday night.
A couple of years after its inception as an NFL franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars swung a trade for Mark Brunell from the Green Bay Packers to begin their trek as an official pro team. It was quite a coup after also drafting now-Hall of Fame tackle Tony Boselli and acquiring outstanding wideout Jimmy Smith that same year.
What ensued was a great four-year stretch from 1996-99 wherein the Jaguars went 45-19 with four playoff appearances, including an AFC Championship Game appearance. Brunell made four Pro Bowls while operating in the rough-and-tumble former AFC Central, bringing the new team to immediate prominence.
However, after letting Brunell walk after the 2003 season, Jacksonville has had issues re-solidifying the position. They had a couple of flash-in-the-pan seasons from former first-round picks Byron Leftwich and Blake Bortles in 2005 and 2017, respectively, along with another from fourth-rounder David Garrard in 2007, but not much else has materialized.
In fact, in the 21-year span of 2000 (the year following Brunell’s last playoff appearance) and ending in 2020, the Jaguars had as many postseason appearances (four) as they did during No. 8’s career down south. However, the move they made in the 2021 draft has once again changed the trajectory of the franchise.
Trevor Lawrence was deemed a generational quarterback talent back as a freshman at Clemson and proved it throughout three seasons with the Tigers. It culminated with two National Championship appearances, with one victory.
The loss in the National Championship, of course, came at the hands of Joe Burrow and the 2019 LSU Tigers. Much like the Jacksonville Jaguars a year later, the Cincinnati Bengals were in need of another generational talent and tapped Joe Burrow for the job.
And, while the Bengals are an older franchise than Jacksonville, they have the distinction of once being an expansion team themselves. Fans have been spoiled for spans of quality quarterback play, from Ken Anderson to Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer, and Andy Dalton, but they’ve also seen a dry spell spanning a decade that was fraught with ineptitude.
Jeff Blake provided about three seasons worth of excitement, with Esiason bringing another half of one in 1997, but David Klinger, Jay Schroeder, Akili Smith, Neil O’Donnell, and Scott Mitchell were names on a list heading up “The Lost Decade.” With that, Cincinnati’s futility from 1991-02 may have out-dueled Jacksonville’s issues that spanned two decades.
But, here they are now with two of the best young quarterbacks in the game. Unfortunately, the Bengals are without theirs, but the paths to stardom for Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence date all the way back to the 2019 season.
Burrow had a superb senior season with the LSU Tigers, putting up one of the best seasons ever seen by a college quarterback and eventually winning the Heisman Trophy that year. It was an especially compelling campaign, given his being cast-off from Ohio State.
Not to be outdone, Lawrence led his Clemson Tigers to their second-straight National Championship Game and fourth in a five-year span. Burrow got the best of that contest, and both went on to be back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft.
Burrow’s absence has reverberated through this one, as the line on DraftKings has fluctuated from Bengals +8.5, to now the Jaguars being a 10-point favorite. But, it’s also the recent disappointing news that emerging star cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has landed on IR.
The injuries to star players are particularly disappointing this year, as pretty much all of the best AFC teams have shown varying forms of vulnerabilities. Cincinnati is included in that group, as their slow start and a downward trend in defensive performance this year, but when looking at the Steelers, Chiefs, and Browns all losing on Sunday, the conference appears to be ripe for the taking.
While the Bengals technically have a heartbeat for the postseason, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that of looking to 2024 and in seizing the opportunity with a healthy Burrow back at the helm. That puts Jacksonville in the limelight for this year’s postseason bracket.
But tonight’s game is one that would allow the upstart Jaguars to take that vaunted next step in this regime. Sure, the Bengals are battered, but beating a team that has had high levels of recent success on primetime while heavily favored is a brick in which solid foundations are poured.
For a seemingly unlikely Cincinnati win and subsequent postseason push, there are three factors at play. Backup Jake Browning will need to grow more comfortable with additional starting experience and routinely get the team into the 20-plus-point range regularly.
Cincinnati will need to find more effectiveness in the running game, as that has been a deplorable facet of the team this year. And, with their opportunistic nature on defense, they’ll need to take advantage of any/all turnovers they create going forward.
For Jacksonville, it’s just about limiting those mistakes. Lawrence has cut down on his interceptions since throwing 17 as a rookie, but fumbles remain a little bit of an issue. They can’t be careless and expect to win against a reeling Cincinnati squad.
Still, until the Bengals can prove they’re able to win with Browning at the helm, they’ll be underdogs in the weeks ahead.
Jaguars 26, Bengals 16