JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California
1.Get a lead – preferably a double-digit one.The 49ers are going Ga Ga over Garoppolo – and with reason: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is 3-0 as their starter and is showing why he was so coveted while the backup in New England the last few seasons. And while the 49ers are 4-10, they're 4-1 over their last five games with a strong feeling that they're in a resurgence that will lead to success next season. The 49ers are improving and will care very much about this game. The best way to crush the will of a young team playing at home? Get ahead early and silence the crowd. The Jaguars have been exceptionally good at crushing wills this season. They haven't squandered anything larger than a 10-point lead and haven't lost a game they have led by eight or more points.
2.Overwhelming the offensive line – and Jimmy G.Garoppolo has been very good in recent weeks, rallying the 49ers from a late deficit for a 25-23 victory over the Tennessee Titans this past Sunday. He is averaging 336 yards passing in three starts and has three touchdown passes with two interceptions this season. But the 49ers' offensive line for the most part is struggling; Garoppolo's effectiveness has come in part because his ability to get the ball out quickly and the 49ers are the NFL's 24th-ranked running offense. The 49ers and Garoppolo haven't faced a defense that rushes the passer as well as the Jaguars or a secondary that is as quick with the ball in the air. He's still a young, inexperienced quarterback and defenses that swarm like the Jaguars can overwhelm young, inexperienced quarterbacks.
3.Keep flinging.The 49ers' defense is ranked 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed and 23rd against the run, but forget the statistics: this unit that is playing better in the last month, particularly against the run. And while the Jaguars rushed for 138 yards in a victory over the Texans this past Sunday, they averaged just 3.8 yards on 38 carries. The good news for the Jaguars is they are becoming a more balanced offense, gaining potency with the continued improvement of quarterback Blake Bortles. He is the NFL's highest-rated passer in December, throwing for seven touchdowns with no interceptions. His receivers – Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and Jaydon Mickens – are showing the ability to beat the single-coverage that comes with teams stacking the box against the NFL's top-ranked run offense. If teams keep defending the Jaguars that way, Bortles has shown in recent weeks he can beat that approach.
1.Get after Garoppolo.He's confident in the pocket and accurate on the run. What you don't want is for him to feel comfortable, which is how he has looked the last three weeks. 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan isn't afraid to let it rip, but it's clear they're working the quick passing game to build a tempo and take pressure off a quarterback who has been in California less than 60 days. Former Jaguars guard Zane Beadles is starting at right tackle in San Francisco, which should tell you the status of the 49ers' offensive line. That should be a leverage point for the Jaguars to make Garoppolo as uncomfortable as possible; when he runs, the defensive backs need to plaster their receivers. Focus on them and not Garoppolo, who has a little Russell Wilson about him.
2.Be aggressive on offense.It's working – and when rookie running back Leonard Fournette is back on the field, it will work even better. Bortles is confident and always has seemed more comfortable taking chances in a Brett Favre kind of way. Attack a secondary that is underwhelming in coverage; in the process, back talented big men such as DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas off the line of scrimmage, not to mention keep linebacker Reuben Foster on his toes. This is a front-loaded defense, which means you must throw to set up the run this week.
3.Play for the AFC South and the No. 2 seed.The first is obvious: win and the South title comes home with you for the first time. That would cement the first home playoff game since 1999. The No. 2 seed is trickier; even if it isn't in your control, you don't know what will happen with the Steelers in Houston or the Patriots against the Bills. I don't expect Pittsburgh or New England to lose either of their remaining games, but it happened to New England in 2015 when the Patriots lost to the Jets and Dolphins late in the season to lose home-field advantage.