JACKSONVILLE – The NFL regular season is here. At long last.
It's the most-anticipated Jaguars regular season in five seasons, perhaps longer, with the defending AFC South Champions opening the 2023 season with a tougher-than-many-might-believe division game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.
And make no mistake:
- Sunday absolutely could be a tricky matchup. The Jaguars are deservedly favored, but it's also Week 1 against a team with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach – and if those elements seem to favor the Jaguars, such unknowns make the already difficult task of Week 1 game planning even tougher.
- Colts rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, will start in his first professional game. Shane Steichen will make his NFL head coaching debut for the Colts, whose offense will be similar to what Steichen ran in Philadelphia with quarterback Jalen Hurts – but there will be wrinkles the Jaguars haven't seen. Those wrinkles make these sorts of Week 1 matchups dangerous.
- If it's a difficult matchup, it's also an important one for the Jaguars. While they appear to be an ascending team, they won the division – and made the postseason in 2023 – by winning their final five regular-season games and by scoring a defensive touchdown in the final four minutes of the regular-season finale.
- If they're to contend for the conference title/Super Bowl, they must be more consistent and rely less on dramatics. They also must control the division. That starts with winning division games on the road. The first test in that area comes Sunday.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to pass it:
- Contain Richardson … Richardson is inexperienced, having started just 13 games at the University of Florida. As such, the Colts figure to be limited at times in terms of complexity in the passing offense. But he is a top-end physical talent, and his size and speed figure to allow him to make off-schedule plays. He probably will have a big play or two that frustrate the Jaguars' defense Sunday. The goal is to minimize that frustration.
- … and force him into mistakes. Richardson's reputation at Florida was that of a big-play player who would make mistakes. The Jaguars must take advantage of the second part of that reputation Sunday.
- Start fast. The Jaguars emphasized this throughout training camp and preseason. While the Jaguars' run to the 2022 AFC South title was memorable, it was built on dramatic second-half comebacks. Better efficiency early will mean less drama late.
- Run. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a core of talented receivers form the Jaguars' identity. But the Jaguars showed signs in the preseason of being a very good running team, with running backs Travis Etienne Jr. and Tank Bigsby potentially very good. Keep an eye on this area. If it's as strong as it looked for the last month, this offense will be special.
- Defy history. The Colts have won 17 of 22 meetings between the teams in Indianapolis, including the last five and nine of the last 10. The Jaguars have been better at home against the Colts than against any other opponent in recent seasons, winning eight consecutive games in the series there, but that trend hasn't extended to Lucas Oil Stadium.
- Force turnovers. The Jaguars weren't a great pass-rushing team last season, but they were very good forcing turnovers and finished fourth in the NFL in the category. This defense must continue that trend this season.
- Lean on the playmakers. The Jaguars have far more established playmakers than the Colts. Lawrence, Etienne, wide receiver Calvin Ridley. That's less than half the list. The NFL is about making plays – big ones – and the Jaguars can establish the tone for season if their playmakers make those plays Sunday.
- Dominate the running game. The Colts are without Jonathan Taylor, one of the NFL's top running backs. The Jaguars' front seven is a stout unit that should stop a team without its top running option.
- Be patient. The Colts under former Jaguars Head Coach and current Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figure to play a scheme designed to force Lawrence to work the ball underneath. That can require patience on the part of the quarterback, particularly one with as many weapons as are in the Jaguars' offense. Lawrence has improved against that approach in his two seasons. He must play smart Sunday.
- Just win. Jaguars observers have huge expectations for this season, and many expect a one-sided result Sunday against a team expected to struggle. The Jaguars must forget those thoughts. Winning in Week 1 is hard. The results in the regular-season opener are often weirder than in any other week. It doesn't matter how the Jaguars win, just that they win.