Two games separate the top of the AFC South from the bottom and the Jaguars are right in the middle, along with the Tennessee Titans. Folks, we are about to head into the stretch drive. Let's take a look at each team's path.
Colts—At 6-3, the Colts are in their familiar position at the top of the division. They've lost key players to injuries but they still have Peyton Manning at the controls. The question heading into the final seven games of the season is this: Is Manning the same quarterback he has been? His stats over the last few weeks, since he lost Dallas Clark for the season, are not Manningesque. He and the Colts will get a major test this Sunday night in New England. The Patriots, no doubt, will be up for this one, for this is the game that left them and their coach embarrassed a year ago. The Patriots were never the same. Following Sunday's game, the Colts return home for games against the Chargers and Cowboys. The Colts will face the Titans twice in the final month of the season. They'll also host the Jaguars and travel to Oakland. That's not an easy slate. If they don't win the division title, the Colts could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Titans—A game behind the Colts, the Titans have a challenging finishing schedule in that they'll play division foes in five of their final seven games. Coach Jeff Fisher, however, is no doubt looking at that rare stretch of division games as being favorable for his team because he should have no problem focusing his team for games that will determine the Titans' fate. If division games count two, as coaches are fond of saying, then the Titans can lay the rest of the division to waste by getting hot down the stretch. They'll host a weak Washington team this week and face a fading Chiefs team in Kansas City in week 16. At all other times, it's head-to-head stuff against their AFC South counterparts, and the Titans already have a win in Jacksonville in the bank.
Jaguars—Tied with the Titans at 5-4, the Jaguars have three menacing road games upcoming: at Giants, at Titans, at Colts. They must win at least one of those games to have a reasonable chance of making it into the postseason, and that would require that they win all of their other games, too. That begins, of course, this Sunday against visiting Cleveland. Any chance the Jags have of winning the division title will likely require winning in Tennessee and in Indianapolis. That's a tall order.
Texans—Forget about 'em. That "Hail Mary" play killed whatever hope the Texans had of making a run for the playoffs. At 4-5, the Texans are at death's door and they are facing a killer schedule over the next five weeks: at Jets, Titans, at Eagles, Ravens, at Titans. This will not be the year the Texans break through and make it into the postseason.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars have to do to beat the Browns.
1. Stop the run—The Browns beat nobody without running the ball. It's just this simple: Stop the run and win.
2. Play tight in the secondary—The Browns receivers are not a get-deep group and the quarterback doesn't have a go-deep arm.
3. Push the envelope—David Garrard and the offense are on a roll. They are the stars of this team and they are carrying it. Don't let up now.
4. Remember last season—The Jags got pushed around up front in the cold on Lake Erie. That must not happen again.
5. Beware of tricks—Eric Mangini loves the trick stuff. He made a fool out of his mentor, Bill Belichick.
6. Forget about the blind side—The Jags aren't likely to beat Joe Thomas. Focus the pass-rush somewhere else.
7. Play high and short—Colt McCoy isn't very tall and doesn't have a strong arm. He's dinking and dunking.
8. Make the kicks—What happened last weekend is a formula for disaster. Josh Scobee has had too good of a season for it to go up in smoke at crunch time.
9. Ride the wave—Last Sunday's thrilling win has created a wave of enthusiasm. Ride it.
10. Smell first place—Because that's where the Jags will be if they beat Cleveland and the Colts lose in New England.