JACKSONVILLE – The cool thing about late-season NFL games?
When you're in contention, they get bigger and bigger, and the buildup gets better and better – and for the first time in a long time, it appears the Jaguars could experience that.
That's the Jaguars' scenario as we put Thanksgiving in the rear view. They are a game out of first place in the AFC South with a game remaining against all three division opponents. They also play three of the next four games at home.
That doesn't make the Jaguars the divisional favorites, but it sure makes things interesting. It also makes Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers big. Really big.
The Jaguars lost to the Chargers last season at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. That was Blake Bortles' first career start.
A season and a half later, he's still working to eliminate mistakes and he's not yet a savvy veteran. But he's a vastly improved young quarterback, and he's showing signs of being a franchise guy. And he's only one reason the Jaguars are in the postseason conversation as Thanksgiving.
A victory Sunday would keep them very much in that discussion.
Here are 10 things they must do Sunday to make that happen:
1)Punch it in.The Jaguars can get inside opponents' territory. They can reach the red zone. Occasionally, they can score touchdowns there, but not enough. More than play-calling, or blocking, or the Fade Route Issue, this is about experience. Second-year quarterback, young skill guys, first-year offense … it all adds up to red-zone inefficiency. When will they grow through it? Stay tuned.
2)Punch it in!!All the reasons in No. 1 are fine, but don't let the details overwhelm the big picture. This is maybe the major issue facing the offense. A few more red zone touchdowns might just mean a few comfortable leads. That could turn into a few more victories. That could turn into … hmmm.
3)Keep believing.Yes, it's corny, but you couldn't have watched the Jaguars' three victories in the last four games and not think maintaining belief didn't have something to do with it. One-sided victories will be rare for this team, if they happen at all. Keep believing at the end of games.
4)Play clutch late.The Jaguars' major issue early this season has been the Chargers' issue all season: an inability to win close games. San Diego is 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less while the Jaguars have come from behind in the fourth quarter to win by less than a touchdown in all four victories. This will be tight. Gotta make a play.
5)Stop Philip Rivers.This is unlikely. It's hard to completely stop Rivers because he's that good, that experienced and that savvy. What you have to do is slow him and force him into the occasional sack, and the occasional mistakes. To do that, the Jaguars will need to …
6)Time the pressure.The Jaguars have blitzed more in the last month. A lot more. That's really difficult to do against Rivers because of how quickly he gets the ball out. It's also tough because of his command of the offense at the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars will blitz on occasion, but timing the pressure – and getting home when pressure is called – will be key.
7)Cut out the "oh nos."You've seen them: those passes that leave Blake Bortles' hand and everyone watching says, "Oh, no." For all of his improvement – and the Jaguars wouldn't be in the division race without that development – he must reduce the oh-no plays for the Jaguars to stay in contention down the stretch.
8)Convert short-yardage. This looked like a preseason strength. It's not. Maybe using T.J. Yeldon more is the answer. Maybe more jump balls to Allen Robinson. Maybe better execution. Whatever. It's hard to win in the NFL when you can't convert goal-to-go situations.
9)Make the make-ables.Jason Myers made makeable field goals against the Titans – and he was a big reason the Jaguars won. With as many close games as this team will play, every point scored and not scored will be huge.
10)Feed off the 'Bank.Were you there Thursday night against Tennessee? Did you feel the energy? Don't think it won't be there again Sunday. This crowd is hungry for winning. Feed that hunger.