7. A reason to believe.
There are a lot of reasons for observers to pick against the Jaguars Sunday – the fact that the Texans are playing very well and playing at home chief among them. But there are a couple of factors that indicate the Jaguars have a better chance than many believe. One is that the strength of the Texans' offense isn't as much the passing game – despite the presence of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson – as a running game that is among the NFL's best. Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak is a disciple of Mike Shanahan, and as such, his offense is at its best when running backs are running downhill, cutting back and establishing the tone of the offense. Ben Tate and Arian Foster have combined for 886 yards rushing and four touchdowns in seven games, and are dangerous, but the Jaguars have shown this season that when they're playing well up front, they can shut down the run. Stopping Foster/Tate will be a more difficult task than stopping Ray Rice and Chris Johnson, with Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman saying the primary difference being that while the Ravens' and Titans' offenses are similar, the Texans' personnel has been in the system much longer and is therefore significantly more difficult to defend. Still, if the Jaguars' defense can limit the run they can limit the Texans enough to stay in the game.
6. One more thought.
Looking back isn't the typical mode of Magnificent Seven, but one thing seemed to get lost in the aftermath of the Jaguars' victory over the Ravens. Yes, the defense played extraordinarily well, but the offense did in spots, too. The passing offense continues to be among the NFL's worst, but the running offense controlled the line of scrimmage and in spots, controlled the momentum of the game. This is impressive enough against an ordinary opponent, but anyone who has seen the Ravens play has seen opponents either not try to run at all or give up on the run quickly. The Jaguars didn't, and there was a point in the fourth quarter when it seemed obvious the Ravens' defense was just tired of the whole situation. They didn't quit, because the Ravens never do, but the Jaguars were getting significant enough push that they maintained possession offensively and set themselves up for enough field goals to win the game. "We always thought we could run the ball," Jaguars center Brad Meester said. "One thing we've done up front is continually work to get better in what we've been doing. A lot in that game was communication. We did a great job of communication, because Baltimore does so much stuff, different defenses, slanting guys. We did a good job of communicating that. It's something we've been working on and lately, that really has helped translate into us running the ball pretty well."
5. Speaking of the offensive line . . .
One idea that has gotten out of control has been the notion that Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe has been disappointing. While that may have been true during the preseason, it has not been the case in the regular season. Monroe has missed two of seven games with a shoulder injury, and a case could definitely be made that he needs to be on the field more, but when he has played, he has been solid. He is perhaps not at the level that he could be. That is a high level because he is a potential Pro Bowl left tackle, but he is playing at a far higher level than many observers believe. When breaking down the drafts of General Manager Gene Smith, many have pointed to Monroe as a negative, and even suggested that the Jaguars may have to address the position in the draft. If that were true, it would be a problem, because you don't want to be re-drafting core positions within five or six years of drafting them. But it's not the case. There's nothing to suggest yet that Monroe isn't a solid left tackle and there's no thought of needing to readdress the position.
4. Speaking of vindication . . .
There has been a lot of talk in the same vein about Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis. As such, many were amazed at the game Mathis turned in on Monday. They shouldn't be. He played at a remarkable level against Baltimore – as well as he has played in some time – but he had been playing well throughout the season. He and Derek Cox shut down the Ravens' receivers about as much as cornerbacks can shut down receivers in the passing era. They did so playing man-to-man, something they can't do every week, but something they did very well Monday and that they could do to an extent Sunday against Houston.
3. One other reason.
OK, maybe we're spending too much time on what ifs, but stay with this one. One of the reasons the Jaguars slipped to 1-5 was the defense struggled to start games. The Jaguars allowed touchdowns on their opponents' opening drive in four of their first six games, losing those four games to the Jets, Saints, Bengals and Steelers. The week leading to the victory over the Ravens, that was a major point of emphasis, and once the Jaguars got the Ravens off the field with three-and-out series the first few times, the enthusiasm and confidence grew. The Ravens had outscored opponents 59-7 in the first quarter this season, and once the Jaguars got out of the first quarter Monday with a 3-0 lead, the dynamic of the game shifted dramatically. The task early for the defense is just as clear and just as difficult this week. The Texans have outscored opponents 50-13 and 67-22 in the first and second quarters, and the onus is even more on the Jaguars' defense this week. The Ravens jumped on many of their opponents quickly by forcing turnovers and making big plays defensively. The Texans have the sort of offense that often comes out strong and strikes quickly. The Texans Sunday have a chance to deliver a knockout blow to the Jaguars and playing at home, they'll want to do it early. If the defense can prevent that from happening, the Jaguars will have a chance.
2. Wither Marcedes?
The whispers have turned into a roar in recent weeks, and these days, it's hard to find a Jaguars follower not down on tight end Marcedes Lewis. Credit Lewis for this: He may not be producing at the level at which he hoped a year after making his first Pro Bowl, but he remains a stand-up guy, addressing the media Wednesday. Lewis said he remains confident, and that he and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbbert will get "on the same page" soon. Lewis this season has 11 receptions for 129 yards and no touchdowns, and has had two drops on catchable passes in the end zone – one against Cincinnati and one against Baltimore. "Whenever you have a new quarterback, you want to get on the same page – timing, figuring out where his launching point is, stuff like that," Lewis said. "Obviously, the ball comes out a little faster when Blaine is in there, but that's repetition. We're getting that and pretty soon, we're going to be clicking at the right time. The main thing for us is believing in what we've been doing and that how hard we've been working is worth it. And we do. We believe in it and we're going to start seeing the fruits of our labor." Lewis said defenses also are game-planning more for him this season than in the past. "Obviously, guys are paying a little more attention to you," he said. "I think it's cool, but regardless, I have to catch it. I'll put that pressure on me." Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio was asked about the idea that whenever a player signs a big contract – as Lewis did early in training camp – there will be a perception that the player signed the big contract and isn't living up to it. "Anytime you're hearing stuff like that, you've got to perform or it will continue," Del Rio said. "There's nothing you can do to talk your way out of it. He was dominant last year, he did get paid and we haven't gotten him on track the same way this year and so we need to. He's one of our big players. We're working hard to get him involved. We've narrowly missed on several opportunities and we'll keep looking to utilize him. He's a big, strong athletic guy. He's very capable of giving us a big lift and we're going to continue to look for him."
1. A final word on Gabbert.
Time for the weekly closing thought on Gabbert. Such is the nature of the NFL: the Jaguars had a big victory Monday and the defense played very, very well, so naturally criticism turns to the offense – and to the quarterback. Gabbert is getting all sorts of criticism for his footwork and pocket presence, and those issues without question must be corrected. It would be nice if it happens during the season, but the reality is it may be something that has to be addressed with an off-season of focus on the basics. He also is getting compared unfavorably to Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and now Christian Ponder. All that is to be expected, but there are positives to what Gabbert is doing. He hasn't thrown an interception in three games and there are flashes in what he's doing that indicate that when everything around him improves – i.e., the receiving corps, etc. – the elements are there for success. Gabbert appears to be seeing the field better each week, and he appeared to make smart decisions Monday. He has moved into a few more sacks this season than you'd like, and the criticism that he throws off his back foot appears to have merit, but as I've said since training camp: this is going to be a process that takes time. It's not going to happen in a day, or a week. Just because it's frustrating doesn't mean progress isn't being made.