CHANDLER'S CROSS, England – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Dallas Cowboys at Wembley Stadium in London Sunday.
The time zone is different and the surroundings are, too.
But the buzz around the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Dallas Cowboys at Wembley Stadium in London Sunday remains strikingly similar to the buzz of the last month or so.
The Jaguars are playing well in spots, and at times, they're playing well enough to beat good teams. The search continues for the consistency needed to get that done.
But the primary buzz remains around the quarterback.
Blake Bortles, the Jaguars' rookie starting quarterback and the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, has played in seven games with six starts. He has done so with mixed results, looking confident and helping the Jaguars' offense, but also throwing 13 interceptions, some of which have come at critical times.
The Jaguars since Bortles has entered the starting lineup have improved, playing much more competitively in his six starts than when he was backing up Chad Henne. Part of the improvement has been Bortles' pocket presence and escapability, and part has been an increasingly consistent defense and a running game that has improved with the development of running back Denard Robinson.
Still, despite those improvements, the Jaguars have lost five of Bortles' six starts, with the victory coming 24-6 over Cleveland at EverBank Field in October. The Jaguars have lost to Miami (27-6) and Cincinnati (33-23) in two games since.
The Cowboys arrived in London this week with significant issues for the first time this season.
The biggest issue is the most high-profile issue, and that's a back injury that has starting quarterback Tony Romo's status uncertain entering Sunday's game.
Romo, whose experience and playmaking ability is key to the Cowboys' offense, reportedly sustained two small fractures in his back in a Week 8 loss to the Washington Redskins. The injury kept him out of a loss to Arizona Sunday that knocked Dallas from first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys were 6-1 before losing back-to-back games.
Romo's status remains uncertain for Sunday, and it likely will be an issue throughout the week.
While Romo is critical to the Cowboys, he is hardly their only strength. Running back DeMarco Murray rushed for more than 100 yards in his first eight games, being held to 79 this past week by Arizona. The Cowboys' defense, much-maligned last season, has improved dramatically this season, ranking ninth in the NFL with 21.7 points allowed and 13th with 350.6 points allowed per game.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Demetrius McCray versus Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams.This matchup is largely about Bryant, who is one of the NFL's best big-play receivers with 50 receptions for 635 yards and six touchdowns. He has special athletic and playmaking ability. Gratz and McCray have started opposite one another the last two weeks, and have played solidly for the most part. Against the Bengals last week, Gratz and McCray faired admirably against Mohamed Sanu and A.J. Green, allowing each a touchdown reception but not letting either player control the game.
*Cowboys offensive front versus Jaguars defensive front. There's too much strength versus too much strength to single out one matchup. Dallas features a strong, cohesive front with left tackle Tyron Smith having emerged as one of the NFL's best at the position. The Jaguars' line has played well with experienced tackles such as Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller controlling the interior, and defensive end Chris Clemons has four sacks for a defense that has 27 sacks on the season. If the Jaguars' front can pressure the quarterback and limit Murray, that will give them a chance Sunday.
*Jaguars running back Denard Robinson versus Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain.This maybe isn't a true one-on-one matchup, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Robinson has infused energy into the Jaguars' running game, averaging more than 100 yards a game rushing the last three weeks for an offense that struggled in the area Weeks 1-6. McClain has been a huge reason for the Cowboys' defensive improvement. A former Top 10 overall selection by the Raiders, McClain joined the Cowboys via trade from the Ravens and has played at a consistently high level for a team that struggled defensively last season.
Jaguars to watch
*Bortles, quarterback.As we said last week and the week before, we'll keep watching Bortles until we don't. That probably means watching for a long, long time. He improved statistically last week against the Bengals, though he struggled early in the game and also had a late-game interception. Bortles' 13 interceptions will continue to be a topic until he strings together a game or two where defenders don't catch or touch multiple passes.
*Sen'Derrick Marks, defensive tackle. The Jaguars' defensive tackle has played at a high level since joining the team as an unrestricted free agent before the 2013 season. This season, he may be playing at a Pro Bowl level, with four sacks in nine games. He is a disruptive force whoever the opponent, and while he had benefitted from the return to health and accompanying high level of play of Miller, Marks' energy level and quickness on the interior is critical for the Jaguars.
*Allen Hurns, wide receiver.He caught two touchdown passes for more than 100 yards in the regular-season opener, and after a few dropped passes, many forgot about Hurns. It's time to remember. Hurns caught six passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals. He is deceptively fast and adjusts well to the ball in the air, which are two reasons he has five touchdowns this season and why the Jaguars have worked to get him in the lineup.
Keep an eye on …
*Jeremiah George sustained a high-ankle sprain while making his first NFL start this past Sunday. He played well at the spot, but is expected to miss extended time. …
*Offensive guard Brandon Linder sustained a shoulder injury Sunday against Cincinnati. His status is expected to be updated later in the week. …
*Safety Josh Evans sustained a shoulder injury Sunday against Cincinnati. His status is expected to be updated later in the week. …
This article is presented by VisitFlorida.com.