JACKSONVILLE – In September NFL terms, this is big.
It's big for early-season momentum. And depending on the events of the next three months, Sunday's Jaguars-Kansas City Chiefs game at EverBank Stadium could be really big for a lot of big-picture, postseason stuff.
It's the 2022 AFC South Champions at home against a powerful – and dynastic – Chiefs team that not only won the Super Bowl following last season, but has been the NFL's most-consistent team for the last half decade.
The Chiefs are the standard the rest of the NFL is trying to reach.
That makes any game against them big, but Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m. feels bigger because of what's happening around the Jaguars right now.
This is an improved team and a hot team, a team that has won nine of 12 games since last October. The Jaguars have won six consecutive regular-season games and seven of eight overall. They are alone in first place in the AFC South after one week of the '23 regular season, and they were the only defending AFC division champion to win in Week 1.
That's part of what makes this game important, but the most important part is that the Chiefs are the Chiefs. Of the Jaguars' three losses in the last 12 games, two were to Kansas City – 27-17 in November in the regular season and 27-20 in an AFC Divisional Playoff in January.
The Jaguars appear to be good. They look like an ascending team that will contend for the playoffs and the division title this season. They look like a team that could play for playoff seeding. A victory over the Chiefs Sunday could matter very much if they are in that position.
Here are 10 things they must do to do to get that victory:
- Pressure Mahomes … Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the NFL's best quarterback. He is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to completely stop. But no quarterback is immune to pressure.
- … be smart about pressuring him … Jaguars outside linebacker Josh Allen described Mahomes as "wiggly" this week. He can move deftly in the pocket while looking to throw – and quickly turn such plays into positive yards and first downs by running or throwing. Jaguars defenders must stay in rush lanes to avoid Mahomes turning pressure into "cheap" first downs.
- … and tackle him when you get pressure. Mahomes is difficult to sack. Defenders often reach him only to miss him. When Jaguars defenders get their opportunities, they must tackle him and force the Chiefs into long yardage.
- Contain Kelce – if he plays. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce missed a Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions with a knee injury. He is practicing this week and appears likely to play Sunday. It's a big ask to stop Kelce. He's an all-time great at the position, a future Hall of Famer and he's playing with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. The Jaguars must keep his game-changing plays to a minimum and force the rest of the Kansas City receiving corps to have huge games.
- Feed off the crowd. The crowd Sunday figures to rival some of the biggest Jaguars home games in recent memory – 2017 Seattle Seahawks, 2018 New England Patriots, 2022 Tennessee Titans and 2022 Los Angeles Chargers. The 'Bank will be wild. The Jaguars must take advantage.
- Run. The Jaguars committed to the run even when it struggled in Week 1. It eventually yielded benefits. Running backs Travis Etienne Jr. and Tank Bigsby are too talented to leave out of the offense just because of a slow start.
- Get Jones blocked. Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones ended a holdout Monday with a one-year contract extension. He will play Sunday. While it's unknown if he will play his normal complement of snaps, he can wreck a game plan with big plays at key times.
- Let Ridley be Ridley. The Jaguars are deep at skill positions, with at least five players capable of making special plays. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is new to the Jaguars this season and is perhaps the main difference from the team that lost to Kansas City in January and this version. He must make a play Sunday that perhaps others can't make.
- Distribute, distribute, distribute. The Jaguars have the skill players to strain the Chiefs' defense at multiple levels all over the field. If the Jaguars can block Jones, they may be able to pressure the secondary enough to break big plays.
- Win the fourth quarter. Head Coach Doug Pederson this week spoke about the Chiefs getting better as the game continued. The Chiefs are a team used to making big plays in late-game crucial moments. The Jaguars have become a good late-game team. To beat the Chiefs, they may need to be a great one.