JACKSONVILLE – The champions are coming – and all that implies.
Not only that, when the Denver Broncos play the Jaguars at EverBank Field on Sunday they will be the most dangerous defending Super Bowl champions possible.
They'll be a champion that really needs to win.
The Broncos (7-4) appeared late last Sunday night to be very much in control of their playoff destiny. They led the Chiefs by eight points in Denver in the closing minutes, but Kansas City tied the game in the final seconds of regulation and won in overtime.
That left the Broncos two games out of first place in the AFC West and tied with Miami for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Broncos players are talking this week about needing to win their final five games to return to the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season – and they may indeed need to win at least four of five to qualify.
Still, while the Broncos are teetering on the edge of the playoff chase, there's nothing unstable about them this season. That's particularly true on defense, where Denver ranks No. 4 in the NFL in yards allowed and first in sacks with 35.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have lost six consecutive games and have made a habit in recent weeks of playing contending teams close – Kansas City, Houston, Detroit and Buffalo – only to lose.
Can the Jaguars break that streak? Can they deliver an unexpected, damaging blow to the playoff hopes of the defending champions? Yes, because it's the NFL.
Here are 10 things they must do to accomplish that:
1. Function offensively.This isn't easy against the Broncos, whose defense is stifling against the NFL's best offenses. Two offensive touchdowns would be an accomplishment Sunday for the Jaguars. Only three teams have scored three or more touchdowns against Denver this season, but all three – Oakland, San Diego and New Orleans – have done it in the last four games.
2. Block Von Miller …This will be the task of Jaguars left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right tackle Jermey Parnell – particularly Parnell. The duo likely won't be asked to do it alone. Miller is perhaps the NFL's best edge rusher and has a league-high 12.5 sacks this season. He can disrupt an offense by himself.
3. … And everyone else.The Broncos lead the NFL with 35 sacks. For the Jaguars to have any chance Sunday, they must keep Bortles at least relatively clean. That means blocking not only Miller, but DeMarcus Ware. And Shane Ray. And Derek Wolfe. And …
4. Hit big plays.The Jaguars' offense has shown solid signs of life in recent weeks, with quarterback Blake Bortles going interception-free for just the third time this season last week. Those are positives, but the Jaguars still have missed too many big plays – and too many opportunities, period. You only get so many chances against NFL defenses and you get fewer than usual against Denver. You must take advantage of opportunities when they're there.
5. Keep throwing to Marqise Lee.This is a way to solve No. 4.
6. Prevent big plays.The Jaguars' defense has played very, very well in recent weeks … with the exception of allowing a few big plays. Those big plays have been killers – and they were absolutely the difference in a loss to Buffalo last week.
7. Run – or at least do something like establishing the threat of the run.Running hasn't been easy for the Jaguars this season. It has been particularly tough with Chris Ivory out – and he has been ruled out with a hamstring injury this week. The Jaguars' run game probably won't be dominant Sunday, but it has to find a way to scrape out something halfway respectable or the Broncos' pass rush … well, it just will be tough is all.
8. Stay strong defensively.The Jaguars' defense has become the core of this team. This has happened despite a six-game losing streak that has ended the team's postseason hopes. It's not easy to stay motivated at 2-9. The defense must do it to have a chance Sunday.
9. Make a momentum-turner. The Jaguars have played well against contenders in recent weeks. None of those teams had a defense on the level of Denver. If the Jaguars are to win, they need a big play from somewhere other than offense. A turnover to set up a point-blank touchdown. A pick-six. A long return. The standard fare won't be enough Sunday. The Jaguars need something special on the menu.
10. Cover the #*%@&$% punts!I mean, c'mon … right? Right!!???!