49ers host Jags in battle of hot teams
Two of the hottest teams in the NFL meet Sunday when the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to face the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif.
Jacksonville and San Francisco (along with the Dallas Cowboys) own the longest current winning streaks in the NFL at three games.
Under first-year head coaches Doug Marrone (Jaguars) and Kyle Shanahan (49ers), both teams are hitting their stride.
Both have quarterbacks playing well: Blake Bortles (Jaguars) and Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers).
The comparisons stop at the playoff picture.
The Jaguars (10-4) have won seven of their last eight, clinched their first playoff berth since 2007 and hold a two-game lead over Tennessee in the AFC South race. If the Titans lose to the visiting Los Angeles Rams (10-4) on Sunday, the Jaguars would have the division title secured right around their 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff.
The 49ers (4-10) will miss for the playoffs after a 0-9 start, but they have found momentum thanks largely to a midseason trade with the New England Patriots for Garoppolo in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick.
The fourth-year veteran has won all three of his starts for the 49ers.
"I think just (we are) getting more confident the more you win," Shanahan said. "Including our bye week, only having one loss in these last five weeks, it's a much more positive feeling that you put together week after week and you build off of that. Everybody wants to be confident, but that only happens when you experience some success."
Garoppolo is completing 68.7 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 98.0.
"You're talking about a guy that is probably the hottest quarterback in the league right now," Marrone said. "It's a credit to him and their coaching staff and the rest of the team on offense. ... Right now, he is the best quarterback in the league."
Garoppolo led the 49ers to a 25-23 comeback win over the Titans on Sunday. He guided the offense 48 yards on seven plays in 1:07 to set up a game-winning 45-yard field goal on the final play.
"He's carried himself like a veteran," Shanahan said. "So far everything I've seen has been great. He's played well in his games. I think he's handled it real well."
Garoppolo has never lost as a starter in his career, winning both starts for the Patriots in 2016 while Tom Brady was suspended.
He also has never seen a defense like Jacksonville's.
The Jaguars lead the NFL in scoring defense (14.9 points allowed per game), pass defense (168.9 yards), sacks (51) and forced fumbles (17). They rank second in takeaways (31) and interceptions (20) and are third in yards allowed (284.1).
"The scheme they run isn't unique, but the players they have makes it unique," Garoppolo said. "They have very talented players at every level of their defense."
The Jaguars had four defensive players selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday: end Calais Campbell (14 1/2 sacks), cornerback A.J. Bouye (six interceptions), cornerback Jalen Ramsey (four picks) and tackle Malik Jackson (eight sacks).
The Jaguars counter with their own success story at quarterback. Bortles, a fourth-year veteran, is starting to realize his potential after being selected with the third overall pick. He has thrown for seven touchdowns with no interceptions over the past three games combined.
The Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing, so Bortles' improvement has created a balanced attack.
"Any time you have a defense play the way they do and any time you have the number one running game in the NFL, that makes a lot of things easier on a quarterback," Shanahan said. "Not to take anything away from him, but he's doing exactly what he needs to do, and he's making plays doing it."
Bortles completed 21 of 29 passes for 326 yards with three scores and no picks for a passer rating of 143.8 last week against Houston.
Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney joined Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas on saying something negative about Bortles either before or after a game. The Jaguars beat all three teams. Clowney was asked Sunday how Bortles has improved, and he said, "He's trash."
Bortles responded on Wednesday.
"If how we're playing and how I'm playing is trash, then I'm fine with being trash," Bortles said.
The Jaguars are getting some key players back.
Running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Allen Hurns returned to practice Wednesday. Fournette missed the Sunday game with a quad injury. The rookie ranks eighth in the NFL with 923 rushing yards and is tied for third in rushing touchdowns with eight. Fournette also has caught 29 passes for 213 yards and a score.
Hurns has missed the past five games with an ankle injury. He has 36 catches for 446 yards and two touchdowns this season.
"I do believe that they have as much qualities as anyone that it takes to win a Super Bowl," Shanahan said. "A top defense, a very good running game, a good offense, good special teams. When you see a team like that on tape that you believe has that ability, it's a good thing. It's a good challenge for your team to go against them and see where you're at."
Updated December 21, 2017