JACKSONVILLE – This feels big.
Yes, we've said that before this season. That's because the Jaguars are in contention – and when you're contending in the NFL, all games are big. Still, the Jaguars play the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday, and …
Well, this feels big.
It feels big when examined as part of an upcoming stretch of back-to-back home games – Cincinnati this Sunday, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers the Sunday after that – and it feels big when examined by itself. It feels like a game the Jaguars should win because the Bengals are struggling in some areas where the Jaguars are strong. At the same time, it feels like a game in which the Jaguars could struggle because the Bengals are really good defensively – and the Jaguars' offense hasn't been consistent enough this season to make you feel good about against really good defensive teams.
Make no mistake:
The Jaguars need the game – and the next. They're 4-3 and tied with Tennessee for first place in the AFC South. Victories in the next two games would put them in ideal position entering the final seven games.
But forget next week for a moment. The Jaguars need Sunday's game. They have yet to win consecutive games this season, and they have yet to win at the 'Bank this season. The Jaguars' four victories have been dominant, feel-good victories but getting that feeling at home? That would be even better, and would make this improved team feel a lot more real to a lot of fans.
Yes, this one's big. As was the case a couple of weeks ago against the Los Angeles Rams, it's not that the Jaguars "should" win Sunday – the Bengals are good and dangerous. But they sure need to win.
Here are 10 things they must do to make that happen:
1.Run.The Bengals are good defensively, but they have been vulnerable against the run in recent weeks. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette appears likely to play Sunday. So does center Brandon Linder. Their presence should allow the Jaguars to run.
2.Stop the run.The Bengals have struggled to run this season, averaging 3.2 yards per carry. The Jaguars' struggles to stop the run in Weeks 1-7 led them to trade for defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. They may not have needed Dareus to stop the Bengals. He can't hurt.
3.Lock down A.J. Green.Look for Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey to spend a lot of time shadowing A.J. Green. That's the game's No. 1 matchup. As good as Ramsey is, Green still likely will get his catches. The key for the Jaguars: keep Green and quarterback Andy Dalton from hitting the big, game-turning play. Such plays have hurt the Jaguars big-time in losses this season. Preventing them is critical.
4.Exploit the Bengals' line – and pressure Dalton.The Jaguars lead the NFL with 33 sacks. Dalton has taken a lot of hits this season. If they make him take a bunch more Sunday – and if they sack him four-plus times – the Jaguars probably get this one.
5.Win the turnover margin.The Jaguars have a plus-eight takeaway-giveaway margin this season; the Bengals are minus 10. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars losing Sunday if they're in the positive here.
6.Control Geno Atkins …The Bengals' defense is no joke. As was the case with defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams three weeks ago, Atkins can disrupt a game from the interior.
7…. and control linebacker Vontez Burfict and end Carlos Dunlap, too.Remember how we said the Bengals' defense is no joke? Burfict is playing as well as he has in his career, and Dunlap is capable of game-changing plays. The Bengals' corners are strong, and they're rushing the passer well, too. Points will be difficult for the Jaguars Sunday.
8.Test the Bengals' safeties deep.As will be the case the rest of the season, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles needs to take shots deep – and hit them. The Bengals will bunch the line to stop Fournette; getting them unbunched will be key.
9.Get points defensively.How good is the Bengals' defense? Good enough that you figure the Jaguars' defense will need to score – or create scoring opportunities – to win Sunday.
10.Get a lead; feed off the crowd.The Jaguars have taken double-digit leads in all four of their victories this season. In their two losses at the 'Bank, they have yet to lead by more than four points. If you think the Jaguars' defense looks "scary fast" when protecting/extending a lead on the road, wait until they get into that situation at home. The fans in the 'Bank are ready to rock. Give them a reason.