JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play host to the Minnesota Vikings at EverBank Field Sunday
The buzz around the Jaguars is that their struggles are approaching historic levels.
The Jaguars (2-10) have lost their last seven games, with the longest single-season losing streak in franchise history coming when the team lost eight games to start the 2013 season. The Jaguars had lost 13 consecutive games at that point, including the last five games of the 2012 season.
All seven losses during the current streak have come to teams at or above .500: Oakland, Tennessee, Kansas City, Houston, Detroit, Buffalo and Denver. The Jaguars have led or been within a score in the fourth quarter in the last five games, including a 20-10 home loss to Denver Sunday.
The Denver loss not only eliminated the Jaguars from playoff contention for a ninth consecutive season, it secured the Jaguars' sixth consecutive season with 10 or more losses.
The Jaguars rank fourth in the NFL in total yards allowed, but remain last in the NFL with a minus-18 turnover margin. The Jaguars' special teams continue to struggle, with a long punt return allowing or leading to a score in each of the last five games.
The Vikings have plummeted in recent weeks – and injuries are a major reason.
After starting the season 5-0, the Vikings (6-6) have lost six of seven games and are now tied for second place in the NFC North with Green Bay two games behind Detroit (8-4).
The Vikings are playing without quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who sustained a major preseason knee injury. The team traded shortly before the season for quarterback Sam Bradford, who has started 11 games and who has thrown for 2,662 yards and 13 touchdowns with three interceptions.
The Vikings are also without running back Adrian Peterson, a five-time first-team All-Pro and the NFL's leading rusher in 2008, 2012 and 2015. He is on injured reserve with a torn meniscus.
Defense has kept Minnesota competitive, with the Vikings ranking third in the NFL in yards allowed and having forced 22 turnovers.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer missed a loss to Dallas last Thursday after undergoing surgery to address a detached retina. He underwent a follow-up surgery Friday, but is expected to travel with the team to Jacksonville.
Matchups to watch
*Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey versus Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs.With Bridgewater and Peterson out, Diggs this season has become perhaps the Vikings' most-dangerous offensive weapon. He has 75 receptions for 806 yards and two touchdowns, and his speed makes him an every-down threat. Ramsey has emerged in his rookie season as a takeaway corner, and he could be assigned to Diggs regardless of where the receiver lines up.
*Jaguars offensive line versus Vikings defensive front.Minnesota held Dallas to a season-low 264 yards last week, and the Vikings have one of the NFL's most-balanced pass rushes. Defensive end Danielle Hunter leads Minnesota with 9.5 sacks and defensive end Brian Robison and defensive end Everson Griffen both have six sacks. The Jaguars' offense has allowed 24 sacks through 12 games after allowing 71 in 2014 and 51 last season.
*Jaguars wide receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee versus Vikings cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman.With wide receiver Allen Hurns (hamstring) uncertain, Lee could start opposite Robinson for a second consecutive game. Either player figures to have a tough matchup when facing Rhodes, a fourth-year veteran from Florida State who has emerged as one of the league's top cover cornerbacks.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback.Bortles remains the Jaguars' key storyline. He has 19 turnovers this season and has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in three of his last four games. Can Bortles stay mistake-free and accurate against a dominant Vikings defense? That will be key.
*Telvin Smith/Paul Posluszny, linebackers.This duo continues to key the Jaguars' defense, and they continue to key a unit that has been dominant against the run at times in recent weeks.
*Dante Fowler Jr., Leo defensive end.With Leo defensive end Yannick Ngakoue dealing with an ankle issue, Fowler could have an increased role this week. The No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft has improved in recent weeks, but has just two sacks this season. Is he ready to turn potential into consistent pressure on the passer?
The Jaguars have lost their last six games at EverBank Field with their last victory there coming over the Indianapolis Colts, 51-16, last December. The Vikings have lost their last four road games. The Vikings won the last meeting between the teams, 26-23, in overtime in the 2012 regular-season opener.
Key to victory
Can the Jaguars generate enough offense? This is a major question with the offense struggling to score and scoring just 10 points against Denver Sunday. The Vikings are the NFL's third-ranked defense and have rivaled the NFL's best defenses all season. Scoring 20 points is a lofty goal for the Jaguars Sunday.
Keep an eye on …
*The Jaguars' running backs will be a position to watch this week. Leading rusher Chris Ivory missed Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, while T.J. Yeldon has played through an ankle injury the last two weeks. Denard Robinson started against Denver, but sustained a left high-ankle sprain Sunday and did not return. The Jaguars' fourth running back, Corey Grant, had his lone carry of the season Sunday.
*Two Jaguars players – Ngakoue (ankle) and safety Peyton Thompson (ankle) – left Sunday's loss after re-aggravating injuries. Their status also will be updated later in the week.
*Other injured Jaguars players to watch this week: tight end Neal Sterling (hip), Otto linebacker Dan Skuta (elbow), center Brandon Linder (ankle), defensive end Jared Odrick (shoulder), wide receiver Allen Hurns (hamstring) and tight end Julius Thomas (back). Odrick, Hurns and Thomas missed Sunday's game while Sterling, Skuta and Linder returned to the game after being injured.