JACKSONVILLE – This could get interesting. And fun.
It's feels that way as the Jaguars head into the bye week, doesn't it? At last?
The Jaguars are 4-3 and tied for first place in the AFC South. They haven't been in a position this good in October since 2007, and everything about this season feels like it has a chance to be the best season since then.
That was the last season the Jaguars made the playoffs and yes: this team is taking on that feel.
Notice we didn't say this is definitely a playoff team. It's way too early for that, and the Jaguars probably must win six of their last nine games to get that done. Six of nine in the NFL ain't easy.
But you know what? Six of nine ain't impossible, either.
Don't believe the Jaguars can make the postseason? Remember: this team leads the NFL in sacks and is second in pass defense. It leads the NFL in rushing and in takeaway/giveaway ratio. It also has four 20-plus-point victories in seven games. Those are big-time statistics that indicate strengths.
The "seven games" is the key part of the last paragraph. If we were three weeks in, the quality of this team would be less certain. After seven games, it's safe to say the things they are doing well are no fluke. This team is good.
But being good doesn't guarantee a postseason push. There are things they must keep doing, and things they must start doing a lot better to make such a run.
Here are 10 of those things:
1)Keep up the lock down.If this team is built on one thing, it's the ability to lock down the opposing passing game. It was on full display against the Colts on Sunday, when a dominant secondary forced at least five of the team's franchise-record-tying 10 sacks. If the Jaguars are going to win big games in November and December, they must keep doing well what they do as well as any team in the NFL.
2)Get four (maybe five) good games from quarterback Blake Bortles.When we say "good," we mean games on the level of Baltimore (four touchdown passes) and Indianapolis (282 first-half passing yards). Considering the up-and-down nature of the passing offense this season, it's not reasonable to expect nine high-level games. But the Jaguars probably will win most of the time when Bortles plays well. If he does it four times – maybe five – that's three or four more victories.
3)Get a boost from Dede Westbrook.The rookie wide receiver is eligible to come off injured reserve next week to play against Cincinnati. He could begin practicing next week. Don't expect Westbrook to abuse first-team secondaries as he did third-team cornerbacks in the preseason, but could Westbrook's speed and athleticism help a struggling passing game? Even a little boost can help there.
4)Keep up the pass rush.The Jaguars lead the NFL with 33 sacks. A lot of that number can be attributed to the secondary and pass defense, but when this front seven has had the opportunity to rush the passer it has done so very well. When the Jaguars have the lead in the final nine games, they must keep closing the door.
5)Improve the run defense.This ties in with No. 4, and it's an area that needs to improve moving forward. The Jaguars' run defense has looked vulnerable in three losses. If this team is going to win close games – and teams must win close games to get to the postseason – it must be able to stop the run.
6)Hit big plays.The Jaguars' offense looked far different in Week 7 than in the first six games of the season. The reason: Bortles hit on three passes of 45 or more yards in the first half of that game after no passes of more than 35 yards in the first six games. Teams aren't going to stop stacking the box against rookie running back Leonard Fournette. If teams are going to stack the box, you must hit big plays.
7)Keep special teams solid.Every game counts if a team is going to push for the postseason. Special teams cost the Jaguars a 27-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6. It can't cost the Jaguars another game, at least not that blatantly.
8)Stay positive in turnovers.The Jaguars lost the giveaway/takeaway statistic to the Colts, 2-0, and still won 27-0. This team's road will get a lot tougher if it can't get back to the turnover forcing machine it had been in the first six games.
9)Protect the 'Bank. At some point …
10)Run, Leonard, run.The Jaguars rushed for 188 yards and shut out the Colts Sunday without Fournette. That was huge, and a good sign, but make no mistake: Fournette has become the core of this offense. This team needs him on the field to win consistently.