JACKSONVILLE – The long, difficult road continues. And it won't end soon.
How else to describe the second half of the Jaguars' 2020 season, a half that began with games against two division leaders – Green Bay of the NFC North and unbeaten Pittsburgh of the AFC North – and continues Sunday against a team motivated by and very much contending for a postseason berth?
Sunday's opponent: The Cleveland Browns.
And while the Browns struggled in recent seasons, they're far from struggling this season. They have won three of their last four games and are 7-3 – three games behind division-leading Pittsburgh but currently holding the AFC's No. 6 seed.
The Jaguars after Sunday play five more teams with winning or .500 records, with the lone exception a road game against a Minnesota Vikings team that has shown improvement in recent weeks.
The task has been made tougher by circumstance. Defensive end Josh Allen and cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Chris Claybrooks have been placed on injured reserve in recent weeks, as have safety Daniel Thomas and cornerback D.J. Hayden. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash won't attend Sunday's game because of COVID-19 protocols, and safeties coach Joe Danna will call the defense.
The Browns, for their part, are contending for good reasons. They're a powerful running team with perhaps the NFL's best running-back combination, and their opportunistic defense has forced 17 turnovers in 10 games.
How do the Jaguars combat that? What must an injured, inexperienced team do to snap a single-season, franchise-record-tying nine-game losing streak? Here are 10 things:
1.Grip it and rip it. Jaguars veteran reserve quarterback Mike Glennon, playing for his fifth NFL team and fourth in as many seasons, will make his first start in three seasons Sunday. As he put it this week, he has nothing to lose and plans to play free. Hey, why not?
2.Protect Glennon. The Jaguars' offensive line has been better this season than many observers believe. When a team trails as much as the Jaguars have this season, it's difficult for even the best offensive lines to withstand the constant pressures of pass rushes that know their opponent must pass. Still, the line must be better for Glennon Sunday than it was in the second half against Pittsburgh last week. If he's going to rip it, he must have time.
3.Stop Chubb … The Browns win in what for the NFL these days is an unorthodox style; they run, run and run some more. Chubb has 575 yards and six touchdowns rushing in six games this season and is a bruising, physical runner. That style will test the stamina and stoutness of a Jaguars defense riddled by injuries in recent weeks.
4. … and stop Hunt, too. The other part of the NFL's best running-back tandem is Kareem Hunt, who has rushed for 644 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games. The Browns have done a masterful job getting both Chubb and Hunt touches, and Hunt is a threat to score on any play.
5.Believe. There are many reasons for a young, injured Jaguars team to not believe in itself this week. To pull an upset and win for the first time in two-and-a-half months, this young team must ignore those reasons – even when they're very valid reasons.
6.Lean on Cole. Jaguars starting wide receiver DJ Chark missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a rib injury. The other starter, Laviska Shenault Jr., missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Reserve Chris Conley missed practice with a hip injury. If Glennon is going to rip it, he must throw to someone. Cole is having the best season of his career, so he could be a go-to option Sunday.
7.Protect the ball. The Browns' defense is improving, but it's not great. Yet. What it does is thrive on takeaways. That meshes well with their run-oriented offense. If the Jaguars give the Browns free possessions, this could get away quickly.
8.Run Robinson. This is a weekly must for the Jaguars. Rookie James Robinson is their best offensive player. The offense runs best when he's heavily involved. The trick is staying in down-and-distance and scoreboard situations that allow him to be featured. That often has been a tough task this season.
9.Intercept Mayfield. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has gone three games without an interception, but he averaged one a game before that. The Jaguars lone victory of the season – a 27-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts – came when they intercepted Philip Rivers twice in Week 1. That was one of two times they won the takeaway-giveaway statistic this season. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars winning this season if they don't win that statistic.
10.Get some breaks. The Jaguars are on their third quarterback in five games. Injuries have forced them to play cornerbacks who have barely played in the NFL. Their defensive line isn't much healthier. Will the Jaguars need good fortune to win? Yes, that's fair.