JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser sets the table by examining key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday
The end is at hand.
The Jaguars will close the 2014 regular season against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday, a game with playoff implications for the Texans. But as the Jaguars prepare for that game, they do so with a clear goal:
They want to finish the season on a positive note.
They want to finish the season on an upswing.
That means finishing it by playing well – and yes, that means finishing it with a victory.
A victory would give the Jaguars a 4-12 record in their second season under Head Coach Gus Bradley and in the second season of General Manager David Caldwell's tenure with the team.
The Jaguars have won two of their last four games after a 1-10 start, and have been competitive in most of their games since a Week 11 bye week.
A reason for that has been a defense that has been strong much of the season – registering 42 sacks, fifth-most in the NFL – continuing to play at a winning level. The offense has been sporadic, allowing a franchise-record and league-high 66 sacks, but the young unit scored three touchdowns last week and enters the regular season with more confidence than it has had all season.
They need to win, and they need some help. That's the Texans' scenario as they enter the final week of the regular season.
Despite playing with essentially a fourth-team quarterback, the Texans can make the postseason as a wild-card team if they beat the Jaguars on Sunday – and if they get some significant help.
The Texans (8-7) are out of the AFC South race, but can make the postseason as a wildcard with a victory over Jacksonville, if the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers in Kansas City and the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore.
The Texans, after a 2-14 season last season, have scraped and clawed their way into late-season playoff contention, doing so despite staggering injuries at the quarterback position. They not only are without starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, but also without Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage.
Case Keenum, who started eight games without a victory for Houston last season, was signed by Houston off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad last week. He started and earned his first NFL victory in the Texans' 25-13 victory over playoff-contending Baltimore Sunday.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars RT Sam Young versus Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.The edge here by definition goes to Watt. He's perhaps the NFL's most-disruptive player and one of the best at his position in recent decades. But while he registered three sacks against the Jaguars earlier this month, Young and left tackle Luke Joeckel did a respectable job with Watt getting one sack while unblocked and another when he touched quarterback Blake Bortles down when the rookie slipped. Repeat that effort on Sunday and the Jaguars will have succeeded.
*Jaguars defensive front versus Texans running back Arian Foster.This matchup goes deeper than the front; the entire Jaguars' defense will be under pressure to stop Foster. Slowing him isn't easy, but if the Jaguars do it they should have a chance to pressure Keenum. If they can do that, they can force turnovers and stay in the game. Foster rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in Jacksonville on December 7. He has 1,223 yards and eight touchdowns on 255 carries this season, his fourth career 1,000-yard season.
*Jaguars cornerbacks Demetrius McCray, Dwayne Gratz and Aaron Colvin versus Texans wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins.The best way for the Jaguars to win this matchup is for the line to pressure Keenum before he throws. But while the rush has been a strength this season, the secondary – particularly the corners – have improved as the season has continued. Colvin is still playing the nickel, though he figures to compete for a starting role next season, and McCray has the look of a long-term starter. Johnson long has been one of the most reliable, productive receivers in the NFL and Hopkins this season has emerged as a big-play threat with 1,205 yards, a 16.5-yards-per-reception average and six touchdowns.
Jaguars to watch
*Bortles, quarterback.Yes, he's still the top Jaguars player to watch and will remain so next season as well. The No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft hasn't dazzled statistically this season, but he has made progress in recent weeks, leading two key touchdown drives in the second and third quarter of a victory over Tennessee last week. He also made timely plays with his legs and registered his third victory of the season. He has a long way to go, but the progress in recent weeks is significant.
*Toby Gerhart, running back.The veteran has had his two best games of the season in the last two weeks since re-entering the starting lineup in the wake of Denard Robinson's season-ending foot injury, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries in that span. His yards-after-contact have helped get the Jaguars into more manageable down-and-distance situations, and that has given a young, struggling offense at least a hint of consistency at times.
*Sen'Derrick Marks, defensive tackle.The veteran registered his eighth sack of the season against the Tennessee Titans last week, a play that triggered a $600,000 bonus. That story made national news, but while it was a feel-good story it shouldn't be lost that Marks has been a critical, effective player on a very underrated defense this season. He's certainly not a lock for the Pro Bowl, but he's just as certainly deserving.
Keep an eye on …
*Defensive end Andre Branch (groin) remains active and hopeful he can play Sunday. He has missed seven of the last eight games since sustaining his injury Week 7 against the Browns. The team is expected to update his status Tuesday. …
*Defensive tackle Roy Miller also remains hopeful he can play Sunday. He missed Thursday's game with a knee sprain sustained the previous Sunday in Baltimore after starting the first 14 games of the season. …