This is the NFL at its best. This is December with the playoffs on the line.
That's the best way to describe Sunday's game against the visiting Houston Texans. At 6-5, the Jaguars are the current leader for the AFC's second wild-card playoff spot, and Sunday's game is the first of a three-game drama that will play out in Jacksonville over the next three weeks and conclude gloriously on national television against the Colts, we hope.
"We are very much in the thick of things and now we have to play our best football," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
In other cities, coaches and players are making similar remarks. In Pittsburgh, Hines Ward called out his teammates with this bold statement: "The playoffs officially begin for us this week. You lose, we're pretty much out of it."
Earlier this week, Ward's coach, Mike Tomlin, told reporters: "We will unleash hell here in December."
Welcome to hell. Welcome to December in the NFL.
This is when we find out who the good teams are. This is when we find out who the clutch players are and which coaches have their teams truly focused. A spring of bravado and a summer of promises are now meaningless because the only thing that matters is how a team plays on the field. You speak with your actions now. You do or you die.
The Jaguars have the greatest of December luxuries: three in a row at home. All around the league, playoff contenders are jealous of the Jaguars' edge. Do you think they'd like three in a row at home in Pittsburgh and Baltimore? You betcha they would.
I'm sorry most of you won't see this game on Sunday. I'm sorry the stands won't be packed with howling fans. I worry about the threat of rain and the potential for the embarrassment we suffered for a game against the Texans on the day after Christmas in 2004.
Nevertheless, I won't have my enthusiasm dulled. I live for these days of genuine human confrontation: David Garrard vs. Matt Schaub with the playoffs on the line. I'll watch it play out and I'll keep an eye on the other games that matter and I'll delight in all of it.
Yes, it's a shallow existence, but it's my existence and I like it. I wish you did, too.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars have to do to beat the Texans:
- Score early—The Texans' fourth-quarter collapse against the Colts might have them on the edge of quit.
- Score often—This one could be a shootout.
- Make them drive the ball—Defending against the number three pass-offense in the league and without Rashean Mathis will be difficult. Don't make it more difficult by allowing easy scores, such as the 98-yarder by Terrell Owens.
- Run the ball—It's what the Jaguars do best and this is the time of year true running teams impose their will.
- Stop the run—Yeah, the Texans are 29th in the league in rushing, so stopping the run shouldn't be too difficult, but the Texans ran for 111 yards in the first meeting and Steve Slaton has been a handful for the Jaguars.
- Rise to the occasion—Rookies aren't rookies any longer in December. It's time for them to take it to the next level.
- Make field goals—This is no time to be in a slump.
- Make them kick it—They're missing kicks, too, especially at big times.
- Win in the red zone—The Texans are dead last in the league in red-zone defense.
- Dominate time of possession—That's always the best strategy against prolific passing teams.