JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts as the Jaguars begin preparing to play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Sunday at 1 p.m.
1.All hopes are on The 'Stache. Let that sink in: The Jaguars' season now depends largely upon Gardner Minshew II, the rookie quarterback who on Sunday went from a feel-good cult-hero story to the franchise's most important player. This is how fast things change in the NFL: Head Coach Doug Marrone less than two weeks ago was answering questions about whether Minshew was ready to be the backup – and Minshew indeed had been inconsistent in the preseason. The good news for the Jaguars is that Minshew played legitimately very well on Sunday. His statistics – 22-of-25 passing for 275 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters – accurately reflected his performance, and Marrone has been genuine this week when praising Minshew's poise and production in difficult circumstances for a player in his first NFL game. The worrisome news is Minshew is a rookie – and even the most-prepared, most-capable young players rarely avoid costly moments. Could Minshew be for real enough to help the Jaguars right what felt like a sideways ship Sunday? That's a big ask, but all hopes are on him.
2.It's M-Word time. As ridiculous as it might seem in Week 2, it's not silly to call Sunday "must-win" for the Jaguars. But while it's not uncommon for a team to scratch into the postseason from 0-2, this game feels critical – and not just because it's a division game with a loss possibly meaning falling two games behind in the AFC South. Sunday's critical nature has more to do with emotion and circumstance. The Week 1 loss to Kansas City was brutal because of the embarrassing defense and because of the loss of quarterback Nick Foles for at least half the season. Here's hope: In contrast to last season's well-documented locker-room issues, players such as cornerback Jalen Ramsey and running back Leonard Fournette spoke following the loss of responding and staying together. That's a good sign, but an 0-2 start would test that resolve – and you don't want to slip two games behind faced with navigating September and October with a rookie quarterback.
3.This must be the defense's game. The word "must" appears often in these quick thoughts; it's that kind of week. The Jaguars must win in Houston for a good feeling moving forward, and it's hard to imagine that happening if the defense doesn't have the sort of dominant performance expected from what was expected to be an elite unit. The Texans are a talented team and a postseason favorite until proven otherwise. But if they have a weakness it's the offensive line, which makes the Jaguars' defensive line key Sunday. While the back-seven's struggles allowed Chiefs wide receivers to run free throughout the first half Sunday, a defensive front that should be the Jaguars' strength played better than the statistics indicated. The Jaguars' front of Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Josh Allen and Co. remains capable of controlling a game. That must happen Sunday to get the Jaguars to .500.
1.If you're looking for a reason to believe, consider this. The 2016 Dallas Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott as a developmental quarterback with a compensatory fourth-round selection. A preseason back injury to starter Tony Romo changed the plan, and Prescott went from last option to first when Kellen Moore broke his leg and Dallas couldn't reach an agreement with Cleveland for Josh McCown. To be fair, the Cowboys had the NFL's best offensive line and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott – so expecting the 2019 Jaguars and a sixth-round quarterback in Minshew to match the '16 Cowboys' 13-3 NFC East Championship level might not be fair. But these Jaguars have some potential on offense and a talented group of playmakers on defense. Just a thought: it has been done before, recently. Let's see what the coaches can scheme up and what the kid can do.
2.THINK! This Jacksonville defense is stacked with playmakers on every level. But they don't always play smart. Linebacker Myles Jack's Week 1 outburst is just the latest example of a team that plays from its ID … for those of you who remember their Freud from college. There is absolutely no reason why this group can't right the ship this week in Houston against an offensive line that allowed six sacks Monday night in New Orleans. If that is going to happen, guys must play with discipline and they must be mentally tough. Jack wasn't against Kansas City – and if you look at the 2018 season, you'll find other examples of guys that didn't and weren't. It's time for these guys to change their "edgy" approach and make it about being smarter and tougher than the guys on the other side of the field … not just faster and more athletic.
3.Young talent. The Jaguars are tight to their salary cap, which is what happens when you spend big in free agency and must start paying your draft picks. The only relief is meaningful contributions from young, cheaper talent and the Jaguars got that on Sunday. Wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. came up with his best performance as a professional, wide receiver Dede Westbrook scored again and both offensive tackles – Jawaan Taylor and Will Richardson – showed up to play. Mix in defensive end Josh Allen and linebacker Quincy Williams on the other side of the ball and you can find reasons to be optimistic about the roster and where it's headed in 2020 when some of the big salaries have to go away. Plus, there are guys we expect to contribute like safety Ronnie Harrison, defensive tackle Taven Bryan and tight end Josh Oliver who could make things a lot more interesting when we see them show up on gameday.