JACKSONVILLE – As late November games go, they get no bigger.
This maybe wasn't what was expected when the 2023 NFL season began, the Jaguars and Houston Texans playing on Thanksgiving Weekend for first place in the AFC South. But this is real, and this should be fun.
The stakes get no higher for late November. The winner takes the lead in the AFC South. For the Texans, that would mean having essentially a half-game lead because the teams would be tied at 7-4 with Houston holding a tiebreaker advantage because of a season sweep.
For the Jaguars, it would mean a two-game lead with six games remaining.
So, while a victory will clinch nothing for either team, it will put the winner in a very good spot to win the division and host a playoff game. The loser will still be very much alive, particularly the Jaguars. They would be very much in the AFC Wild-Card chase and still have a chance to win the division.
More than anything for the Jaguars, it's a chance to take firmer control of a division it won for the first time in five seasons last season. It's also a chance to remain very much in the conversation for homefield advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs.
That's attainable with five teams – the Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs – entering the weekend with three losses. That makes that a real goal for the Jaguars.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do Sunday to move closer to it:
- Communicate. The Jaguars lost to the Texans, 37-17, at EverBank Stadum in Week 3 for multiple reasons. Among them: two huge miscommunications in the secondary. One led to a long pass that set up a touchdown. The other led to a long pass that was a touchdown. Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud likes to test secondaries deep. You must communicate to pass those tests.
- Go mobile. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in a 34-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans Sunday. It was the best the Jaguars' offense has looked in weeks and the most mobile Lawrence has looked in weeks. Perhaps the two are intertwined.
- Stop the run. The Texans have averaged nearly 150 yards a game rushing the past two weeks. It is emerging as a strength to their offense. The Jaguars are third in the NFL against the run and must win this matchup Sunday.
- Pressure Stroud. They didn't do it in Week 3, partly because Stroud got the ball out of his hand very quickly. It's difficult to pressure when that's the case, but the Jaguars must be at least a bit better in this area Sunday.
- Get Etienne in the end zone. Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. didn't score last week, but they're 5-0 when he does. They're also 6-1 when they score a rushing touchdown as a team. This team is best when it can will its way into the end zone.
- Protect the ball. We're breaking out some tried-and-true stuff here, but the Jaguars have been good offensively when they protect the ball and they've struggled when they don't.
- Protect Lawrence. The Jaguars allowed five sacks against the San Francisco 49ers and lost 34-3. They allowed one against Tennessee and won 34-14. Different defensive fronts, different circumstances, but it's hard for the Jaguars to win if Lawrence is under constant pressure.
- Take the ball away. More tried and true here, but the Jaguars are 7-1 when they force a takeaway this season. Stroud has committed six turnovers in the last two weeks. This feels like an area where the Jaguars can control the game Sunday.
- Have Ridley be Ridley. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is the Jaguars' toughest receiver to cover. He has made huge differences in four Jaguars victories this season – Week 1 at Indianapolis, Week 4 against Atlanta, Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills and this past Sunday. He can play above the Xs and Os and strain a defense like no other Jaguars receiver. This needs to be one of "his" games.
- Shut out the noise. The is the biggest NFL game at NRG Stadium since the 2019 postseason. The Texans are a young, ascending team and Houston is excited about their chances. This is the sort of game division powers go win on the road and maintain supremacy. That's the Jaguars' task.