JACKSONVILLE – Here's this week's Setting the Table: Storylines and stuff to watch as the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) prepare to play the Arizona Cardinals (5-4) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday…
The Jaguars did a bit of validating on Sunday.
Now, their task is to keep doing that – and maybe to do it in front of a very good NFC team and in front of the home crowd.
The Jaguars, fresh from their first victory of the season and the first victory of Gus Bradley's head coaching tenure, on Sunday will play host to one of the surprise teams of the 2013 NFL season – the Arizona Cardinals, who have won their last two games to play their way into playoff contention in a balanced NFC.
The Jaguars' focus this week will be maintaining the momentum from Sunday's 29-27 victory over the Tennessee Titans, a victory that snapped a 13-game regular-season losing streak.
The theme in the post-game locker room was that the victory was at least a touch of validation for the approach of Bradley, a first-year coach who players respect and whose philosophy they believe is the right way for the Jaguars to build.
Toward that end, Bradley has continued this week to talk not of getting a second consecutive victory, but of continuing to improve daily, with the idea that if that happens, victories will follow.
On the field, Chad Henne remains the starting quarterback for the Jaguars despite completing 14 of 23 passes for 180 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions Sunday. He has started six games this season, including the last four in succession, completing 146 of 241 passes for 1,630 yards and three touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Henne has started the last two games in place of a healthy Gabbert, and Bradley on Monday said Henne will start Sunday. He said Gabbert needs to be ready in the event of an injury to Henne, but gave no indication of a change at the position.
The Cardinals (5-4) weren't a consensus selection to contend for a playoff spot in Bruce Arians' first season as head coach, but due in large part to one of the NFL's most underrated defenses, they have played their way into the playoff conversation in the first nine games of the season. While wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is easily Arizona's most well-known player, it is the Cardinals' defense that has them in postseason contention. They rank 13th in the NFL defensively overall – third against the run – with linebacker Daryl Washington, defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett and cornerback Patrick Peterson all among the NFL's best players at their positions. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has also quickly emerged as one of the league's top rookies. Quarterback Carson Palmer has struggled at times with 15 interceptions this season, and an issue that will face Arizona entering the second half of the season is its schedule. They are 4-1 at home, and have won just one of four road games. They'll need to fare better on the road to make a serious playoff push. Sunday's game is the first road game for Arizona since October 13.
The game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville at 1 p.m. Sunday will be broadcast regionally on FOX and locally on WAWS-TV FOX30 with Dick Stockton on play-by-play and Ronde Barber providing analysis with Kris Budden on the sidelines.
Early matchup to watch
CBs Dwayne Gratz and Alan Ball versus WR Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals haven't been as strong offensively this season as they have defensively, but Fitzgerald remains one of the NFL's elite players at his position. He has 39 receptions for 493 yards and five touchdowns, and has graded consistently well each week with no drops this season. Ball has been one of the Jaguars' better free-agent signings of the offseason, with six passes defensed and one touchdown allowed. Gratz, a rookie third-round draft selection, returned to the starting lineup last week after not starting since a Week One high-ankle sprain. He immediately reminded why coaches liked him throughout the offseason and training camp, turning in one of the better games of the season by a Jaguars defensive back. His 4.4 grade from Pro Football Focus was the highest defensive grade on the team Sunday, and he registered his first career interception.
Player to watch
Marcedes Lewis. The Jaguars' veteran tight end may not at first seem like a logical player to watch Sunday, and indeed the Jaguars need solid performances from wide receiver Cecil Shorts III and running back Maurice Jones-Drew offensively. But Lewis is a storyline, too. Long one of the NFL's best run-blocking tight ends, he figures to be key as the Jaguars continue to try to establish the area in the wake of a 1.8-yards-per-carry effort as a team against Tennessee last week. But more than that, Lewis has played a role in recent weeks as a veteran leader on the field. He energized the team early with a 31-yard reception in mid-October against San Diego, and did so again this past Sunday. His 27-yard, catch-and-run gain against the Titans set up an early touchdown and set the early tone. The Jaguars are struggling as a whole offensively, so it's not fair to paint Lewis' three receptions for 39 yards last week as season-changing, but with Justin Blackmon suspended indefinitely the Jaguars need weapons and Lewis could help fill that role.
What to watch
*Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, the team's leading tackler and defensive leader, is in the NFL's concussion program, though he has not been ruled out for Sunday's game. Posluszny sustained the injury late against Tennessee Sunday. Bradley said veteran outside linebacker Russell Allen could move inside. If so, John Lotulelei could move into Allen's outside backer role. ….
*Guard Will Rackley and wide receiver Stephen Burton are also in the concussion program, with Rackley having missed Sunday with the injury and Burton leaving the Titans game in the second half. Mike Brewster started in place of Rackley against Tennessee. Bradley said more should be known about Posluszny, Burton and Rackley Wednesday….