JACKSONVILLE – The goal is at hand, and the time is near.
That first sentence has nothing to do with Christmas fast approaching – or with the accompanying life-defining joy – and everything to do with the Jaguars having a real chance on Sunday when they visit the San Francisco 49ers to accomplish a long-elusive goal.
The Jaguars on Christmas Eve can win their first AFC South title.
It might be tempting to call winning the South the perfect Christmas gift, but that would be wrong. No one gifts you a division title, and no one gifted the Jaguars anything this season.
Indeed, the Jaguars have earned their way to within a victory of their first division title in 18 years and the third in franchise history. They have won seven of eight games to take a two-game lead in the division, a lead built on a 4-1 AFC South record and an AFC-best 9-2 conference record.
The Jaguars' season also is built on a slew of victories over contending teams, including the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. They have done it with a dominant defense and an offense that leads the NFL in rushing.
They're beginning in recent weeks to do it with a quarterback finding his footing after three-and-a-half up and down seasons and a young, rapidly-improving receiving corps.
All of that has the Jaguars oh-so close to a division title. They can win it early Sunday afternoon if the Los Angeles Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. If the Titans win that game, the Jaguars can clinch the South with a victory over the 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the 49ers Sunday:
1.Focus.This has yet to be a problem under Head Coach Doug Marrone, and it's hard to imagine it will be a problem with division at hand. Still, Christmas comes but once a year and this is a tricky West Coast trip …
2.Let 50 and 91 loose.Weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith didn't make the Pro Bowl. Neither did end Yannick Ngakoue. Doesn't this just feel like a big game waiting to happen for these guys?
3.Pressure Jimmy G.Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is 3-0 as the 'Niners' starter. He gets the ball out quickly and he's accurate. But he never has faced a defense like that of the Jaguars. Pressure disrupts the best quarterbacks. The Jaguars need to apply a lot of it to Jimmy G.
4.Keep attacking.The Jaguars' offense has been more dangerous in the last three weeks than it has been all season. A lot of that is because quarterback Blake Bortles is attacking downfield on early downs. Keep doing that.
5.Establish the threat of the run.The Jaguars weren't as consistent running last week against Houston as they were the week before against Seattle. Still, the Texans were worried enough about the run to stack the box and leave receivers single covered. If the Jaguars run well enough to make the 49ers worry about the run, Bortles is playing well enough to take advantage of the matchups that creates.
6.Score on special teams … or defense.A big play from one or both of these units has defined many Jaguars victories this season. The guess here is another momentum-turner may be needed to clinch things Sunday.
7.Get an early lead.The 49ers are starting to believe they're good. The best way to make a young team doubt itself is to get ahead of that team early. Also, the Jaguars have yet to lose a game this season in which they have led by more than a touchdown. Get ahead and do it early.
8.Keep the pocket clean.Don't overlook the line in the resurgence of the offense and the emergence of Bortles. He has been sacked once with five pressures in the last two games. When the pocket has been clean this season, Bortles has been good. It has been clean in recent weeks and Bortles has been correspondingly … wait for it … good.
9.Stuff Carlos Hyde.The Jaguars' defense has shown few holes this season. But they haven't loved how they've played the run in recent weeks. Stuffing Hyde and forcing Garoppolo into third-and-long situations is key.
10.Run Leonard.We close with this, because the guess here is rookie running back Leonard Fournette will be key Sunday as the Jaguars try to close this one out. He's expected to play Sunday after missing last week with a quadriceps injury. Run him some early. If you get lead late, run him a lot.