JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to visit the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday
The buzz around the Jaguars is it's all about spoiling now.
The Jaguars face all three AFC South rivals – Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis – in the last three weeks. With all three teams in contention, the Jaguars will have a say in deciding the division winner.
Being a spoiler isn't ideal, but it's the Jaguars' situation with their losing streak having been extended to eight with a home loss to the Minnesota Vikings, 25-16, this past Sunday.
The Jaguars now have lost seven consecutive games at EverBank Field. Their current overall losing streak ties the single-season franchise record set at the start of the 2013 season.
Seven losses during the current streak have come to teams at or above .500: Oakland, Tennessee, Kansas City, Houston, Detroit, Denver and Minnesota. They Jaguars also lost to 6-7 Buffalo during the span.
The Jaguars rank fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed, but despite not having a give-away Sunday, they remain last in the NFL with a minus-17 turnover margin. The Jaguars' special teams continue to struggle, with a long punt or kick return allowing or leading to a score in each of the last six games.
The Texans have a real chance to repeat as AFC South Champions, but they will have to earn it.
They took a significant step toward that by completing a season sweep over the Colts Sunday, a 22-17 victory that kept them tied for first in the South with Tennessee at 7-6. The Texans beat Tennessee, 27-20, in Houston earlier this season and the teams will play in Nashville in the regular-season finale.
The Texans, who had lost three consecutive games before beating the Colts, have won nine consecutive AFC South games and are 4-0 in the division this season.
The Texans rank sixth in the NFL defensively and have allowed 21.1 points per game. Quarterback Brock Osweiler has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns (14), and is averaging just over 200 yards a game passing.
Matchups to watch
*Texans RB Lamar Miller versus Jaguars LBs Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith.With Osweiler struggling, the Texans rank No. 5 in the NFL in rushing – and Miller is sixth in the NFL with 1,010 yards and four touchdowns on six carries. The Jaguars have had stretches of dominance against the run this season, and their 3.9-yards-per-carry allowed ranks eighth in the NFL.
*Jaguars OTs Kelvin Beachum and Jermey Parnell versus Texans LBs Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.The Jaguars' line has improved this season protecting the passer, but the offense allowed four sacks against Minnesota. Despite the absence of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans remain an elite defense. Mercilus has 5.5 sacks this season and Clowney – the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft – had perhaps the best game of his career against Indianapolis with three quarterback hits and a key strip-sack late in the game.
*Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey versus Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins.This figures to be a key AFC South matchup for years. Though Hopkins has 701 yards and four touchdowns compared to 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, he remains one of the league's most dangerous playmakers. Ramsey has fast developed into a shutdown corner, and could again shadow Hopkins throughout the game.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback.Bortles remains the Jaguars' top storyline, and played one of his most efficient games of the season against Minnesota. He went without an interception for the third time this season, but the Jaguars' fourth-quarter offensive struggles continued. The Jaguars had possession twice trailing by two points in the fourth quarter and didn't gain a first down.
*Allen Robinson/Marqise Lee, wide receiver.A Pro Bowl selection last season, Robinson has struggled to get in sync with Bortles this season – particularly in recent weeks. Since his lone 100-yard game of the season against Houston in Week 11, Robinson has nine receptions for 90 yards in four games. Lee, meanwhile, has emerged as the Jaguars' best offensive player with 16 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games.
*Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end.The rookie Leo defensive end has been the team's best pass rusher. He has six sacks this season and needs one more to tie Tony Brackens for the franchise record for sacks as a rookie.
The Jaguars have lost eight of nine road games dating to a mid-November victory at Baltimore last season. The lone victory during that span came when they rallied from a 16-0 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Chicago, 17-16, in October. The Texans have played four of their last five games on the road, but are 5-1 at home this season.
Key to victory
Can the Jaguars win the fourth quarter? The Jaguars in recent weeks have followed a similar pattern of playing teams close or leading into the fourth quarter only to have the offense stagnate and the defense allow a key drive to allow opponents to take the lead and/or secure the game. Head Coach Gus Bradley was right on Monday when he said all three units shared responsibility for Minnesota taking control in the fourth quarter Sunday. If the Jaguars can't figure out a way to close games, this season could well end on a historic, 11-game losing streak.
Keep an eye on …
Lee (lower leg), offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee) and Otto linebacker Dan Skuta (elbow) all finished the game after sustaining or aggravating injuries.
Running back Chris Ivory (hamstring), center Brandon Linder (ankle), safety Peyton Thompson (ankle), wide receiver Allen Hurns (hamstring) and running back Denard Robinson (ankle) missed Sunday's game. Their statuses will be updated throughout the week.