EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Now, this was a good start.
Never mind aesthetics. And forget the winning margin whenconsidering the Jaguars’ soggy 20-15 victory over the tough-as-expected New York Giants in front of 79,992 at MetLife Stadium Sunday.
Depending on your expectations, that margin may make you happy. Or it may not.
The margin didn’t matter. Neither did your expectations. What mattered in Sunday’s 2018 regular-season opener was the Jaguars won. And that was all that mattered.
“I’m happy for the players; opening day on the road is always tough,” Doug Marrone said after his second season-opening victory in as many opportunities as the Jaguars’ head coach.
That will read like “Coach-Speak”, and there will be observers who worry about an offense that struggled in the second half more than they rejoice in a 1-0 start. Still, Marrone was right:
Week 1 in the NFL is tricky. Against a team with weapons such as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and running back Saquon Barkley that’s doubly true. Mix in Giants quarterback Eli Manning and triple it. Quadruple it when you factor in the Jaguars playing without running back Leonard Fournette throughout the second half.
Yes, this was a much tougher spot than you might have thought if all you were analyzing entering this game was the Jaguars’ spot in the AFC Championship Game last season and the Giants’ 3-13 record in the same season.
And that’s why even if Marrone wasn’t smiled outwardly afterward, players were.
“There’s no such thing as a bad Week 1 win, especially on the road,” Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. “It wasn’t pretty by any means, but it feels good to get to it. There’s no such thing as ugly. That’s a well-coached team. They’re very gifted and talented and they’re scrappy.
“They’re resilient. We had to earn it.”
The Jaguars earned it pretty much exactly how you would have expected them to earn an “unpretty” road victory in which Fournette spent the second half out of the game with a hamstring injury.
They gritted. They gutted. They scraped. They clawed.
When asked about a few “unsung heroes” in the second half being key to the victory, Marrone made a point to several key plays the casual observer might miss:
*A mass tackle on Barkley on a fourth-quarter two-point conversion attempt that kept the Giants from cutting a five-point lead to three ….
*An earlier tackle by safety Tashaun Gipson and defensive end Lerentee McCray that stopped Barkley for a one-yard gain on 4th-and-2 from the Jaguars 38 …
“There were a lot of plays,” Marrone said. “I don’t know if you can look at just one.”
“I don’t know if you can look at just one…”
Not if you wanted to know why the Jaguars won, you couldn’t.
The Jaguars won because linebacker Myles Jack did what he has begun to do routinely, returning an interception 32 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The play pushed the Jaguars’ lead to 20-9 – and while a 68-yard run by Barkley cut the lead to 20-15, Jaguars players said afterward they never believed the game seriously in jeopardy after Jack’s touchdown.
They won because both strong safety Barry Church and nickelback D.J. Hayden defensed passes immediately after the two-minute warning. For all the confidence players felt late in the game, the Giants had driven to the Jaguars 36 with 2:00 remaining and faced 3rd-and-6.
All the Giants needed was one big play. As it turned out, they couldn’t get a first down, with Church knocking away Manning’s pass to tight end Evan Engram on third down and Hayden knocking down a pass to Sterling Shepard on fourth down.
Those plays effectively ended the game, and linebacker Donald Payne falling on a muffed punt with :45 remaining officially ended it.
Let the breath-holding stop.
And let the smiling – a little of it anyway – begin.
“Whether this this was 3-0 or 45-42, as long as you get that Week 1 win under your belt it’s huge – for your momentum, for your season starting off,” Church said. “For us, I feel like this is a great momentum builder. Going against this offense was going to be a task. What we did today solidified that we have a pretty good defense here and can keep this thing going.”
No, this wasn’t perfect. And no, the Jaguars can’t play like this at home next week against the defending AFC Champion New England Patriots and win, particularly offensively. But that’s not how the NFL works. How you play one week doesn’t dictate how you play the next. You win, and you move on.
The Jaguars did that. That’s what mattered – that they won.
And there could be no better start than that.