- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Go ahead, Jaguars offensive lineman Uche Nwaneri said, make jokes now.
Bring on the snide remarks about 0-16 and being one of the worst teams in NFL history.
He's waiting ...
He knows nobody's going to have much -- if anything -- to say, not after Thursday night's 27-20 victory over Houston in front of 60,414 at EverBank Field. That was the Jaguars' third win in a row, which Nwaneri said proves they're no longer the joke they were in the first half of the season.
"Everybody who was talking noise can just eat some crow real quick," he said.
The Jaguars (4-9) are the hottest team in the AFC, having won four of their five games since the bye week. The fact that none of the teams they've beaten has a winning record and one, the Texans, has lost 11 in a row, is irrelevant. The Jaguars are winning games, which is something that looked darn near impossible in the first month of the season.
They scored just two points in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. They lost their first eight games all by double digits. They didn't score a touchdown at EverBank Field until Nov. 17.
They're starting three rookies in the secondary. They don't have their best receiver, who was suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy for a third time.
The Jaguars were a mess. They were hopeless. They were a joke.
And boy did people pile on. The season's first month wasn't even over before NFL analysts were comparing the Jaguars to the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2008 Detroit Lions, the only teams in the NFL's modern era to go winless. The players answered those questions openly and honestly, but they were angry inside.
Thursday was another vindication.
"Nobody wants to hear that junk: 0-16, first pick," receiver Cecil Shorts said. "We tried to tune it out but when the media asks that or tweets that we're going to draft so-and-so every day, it's hard to get out of your mind.
"But we did a good job of staying the course and things are really paying off. But we've got a long way to go. Our goal is to get better each and every day."
They've done that since the bye week. Especially defensively, improving their run defense from 161.8 yards per game allowed in the first eight games to 70.8 yards per game allowed over the past five.
But more important, they're making plays in crucial situations. Their first two touchdowns against the Texans came on third down -- Chad Henne's 1-yard pass to Marcedes Lewis and Henne's 6-yard pass to Shorts -- and the third came on a well-designed trick play. Henne threw a lateral to receiver Ace Sanders, who lofted a 21-yard touchdown pass to running back Jordan Todman.
While Matt Schaub and Case Keenum combined to throw for 357 yards and two touchdowns, the Jaguars made two key interceptions. Alan Ball picked off Keenum late in the first half, and that led to Josh Scobee's 40-yard field goal and a 17-7 lead.
Linebacker Geno Hayes intercepted Matt Schaub with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the game, and that led to Scobee's 39-yard field goal with 25 seconds left.
They weren't making those plays in the first half of the season. Heck, they weren't even in position to make those plays.
But coach Gus Bradley never wavered in his message to the team. He told the players to trust in their preparation, trust in what the coaching staff was asking them to do, and trust that if they did those things the results would eventually be positive.
It was hard, for sure, because for so long the results did not come. But Bradley was so strong that the players stayed with him. They never doubted.
Then came a 29-27 victory at Tennessee on Nov. 10. Two weeks later, the Jaguars beat the host Texans 13-6. On Sunday, they beat the host Cleveland Browns 32-28. Then Thursday night.
"We talked a couple weeks ago about it validates what we're doing," Bradley said. "It really is a credit to our players for what they've gone through and to stick to it and have some results go their way, it's pretty cool."
Now the Jaguars are no longer a mess. In fact, their recent run has -- believe it or not -- kept them alive in the playoff race. It's obviously a ridiculously small chance, but the fact that they're still alive after the horrendous 0-8 start means they deserve respect, not ridicule.
"That just lets you know that all the analysts and people who [are] so-called professionals and geniuses don't know what they're talking about," defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said. "It's the NFL. Any given Sunday any team can go out and beat any team."
That's no joke.