JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans Sunday
It ain't over 'til it's over, and it still ain't technically over.
That's the Jaguars' scenario with two weeks remaining in the 2015 regular season: somehow, someway – even at 5-9 – they're alive for a playoff appearance.
They have to win the AFC South to do it, and to do that, they need victories in their last two games – and help from the Tennessee Titans. The Jaguars play at New Orleans Sunday and at the Houston Texans in the next week's regular-season finale.
If the Jaguars win those two games and Tennessee beats Houston (7-7) Sunday and Indianapolis (6-8) in the regular-season finale, the Jaguars will win the division.
That's a long shot, and not just because the Titans are 3-11. Tennessee's starting quarterback, rookie Marcus Mariota, is out at least this week with a medial collateral ligament injury. Zach Mettenberger will start in his place Sunday.
The Jaguars' task is tough enough they needn't worry about Tennessee-Houston. The Saints are a dangerous team with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, and the Jaguars are 1-6 on the road this season – with the lone victory at Baltimore on a 53-yard field goal by Jason Myers with :00 remaining.
The Saints are in the middle of a rebuild, and while they're struggling defensively, they remain one of the NFL's most-potent offenses – and they continue to feature one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
That combination makes this a tough matchup, and the Saints rank No. 3 in the NFL in total offense and No. 1 in passing offense.
It is on defense where the Saints have struggled, ranking 31st in the NFL in yards allowed and 32nd against the run. The Lions scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in a 35-27 victory in New Orleans Monday.
The Saints have allowed 39 touchdown passes this season, one shy of the NFL record set by Denver in 1963.
While speculation has been that Brees and/or Head Coach Sean Payton may leave or even be traded following the season, recent speculation is the Saints are moving in the right direction – and that one or both could return.
Matchups to watch
*Jaguars pass rush versus Brees.If the Jaguars don't pressure Brees, it's hard to see them limiting the Saints' offense. Brees is a master at the line of scrimmage – and at attacking one-on-one matchups created by blitzes. The Jaguars' defense has struggled all season to pressure with four down linemen, an issue that arose again this past Sunday with the Falcons converting five third downs of six or more yards in the second half. If Brees has time, he can do the same.
*Jaguars wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns versus Saints cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux.Quarterback Blake Bortles figures to target Hurns and Robinson – and possibly third and fourth receivers Marqise Lee/Rashad Greene – often, and not just because they're one of the NFL's most-talented young receiving groups. The Saints rank 30th in the NFL against the pass with a pass rush that has generated 28 sacks – 22nd in the NFL this season. Browner has struggled this season with the NFL's lowest grade among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus. Browner also has been penalized 24 times, the most for a cornerback in the NFL this season.
*Jaguars running backs T.J. Yeldon/Denard Robinson versus Saints defensive front.This is more the Jaguars' offensive line/running game versus the Saints, and it's hardly strength versus strength. Robinson rushed for 28 yards on 14 carries Sunday, and the Jaguars' run game has struggled for consistency. The Saints are last in rushing defense, and the Lions – the NFL's 31st-ranked running offense – ran easily at times in the Superdome Monday.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback. Bortles this season has been equal parts encouraging and frustrating, a trend that has continued in recent weeks. The second-year veteran threw eight touchdown passes with no interceptions in a recent two-game span in which the Jaguars scored 90 points against the Titans and Colts. He threw a touchdown in the next game this past Sunday against Atlanta, but his end-zone interception late in the first half was a momentum-turner and in a six-point loss.
*Julius Thomas, tight end.Forget the early chemistry issues with Bortles. Thomas has emerged as a reliable target – and not just in the red zone. He had touchdown receptions in four consecutive games and narrowly missed running that streak to five when Bortles barely overthrew him Sunday.
*The Leos.This position will be watched closely Sunday. The Jaguars need to create pressure, and after Leos Andre Branch and Chris Clemons turned in three sacks against Indianapolis they combined for no sacks against Atlanta. It's difficult to beat the Saints blitzing because of Brees' awareness, so Clemons/Branch need to get pressure off the edge.
Keep an eye on …
*Running back will be an area to watch for the Jaguars this week, with starter T.J. Yeldon missing Sunday's game with a sprained knee and a backup Denard Robinson sustaining a left foot sprain against Atlanta. Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said Monday the hope is that Yeldon can play the final two games, and he also was optimistic about Robinson's status.
*Otto linebacker Dan Skuta played through a hamstring injury, and weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith played through a sprained AC shoulder joint and dislocated finger. …
*Safety Josh Evans sustained a knee injury late in the game and was cleared to return. …
*Cornerback Dwayne Gratz (hamstring) and defensive end Ryan Davis (knee) missed Sunday's game. Their statuses will be updated this week. …