JACKSONVILLE – This is a new thing. Make no mistake about that.
The suddenly-surging, confident Jaguars will play the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday. When they do, they will be alone in first place in the AFC South – and they'll be huge favorites.
The Jaguars have been favored before this season – just last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, in fact. But while many national observers believed the Jaguars would win that game, the presence of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers kept the Jaguars from feeling favored.
They'll have that favored feeling in a big way Sunday.
Not only are the Jaguars playing well enough to deserve the favorite's role, the long-rebuilding Browns have struggled enough to deserve the opposite role. The Jaguars are 6-3, winners of three consecutive games; the Browns have lost all nine games this season, including five by double digits.
So, yeah … the Jaguars are and should be favored. And this is not only a game they should win, it's one they need to win if they are to make the playoff run of which they believe themselves capable.
The question: can they handle this new thing?
They must be mentally strong. They must be focused. They must not believe they are the favorite. They probably need to run, and need to stop the run enough to get a chance to pressure the Browns' rookie quarterback – DeShone Kizer – into the sorts of mistakes he has made much of the season.
The guess here is the Jaguars indeed will be focused. This team feels hungry and motivated, so the guess here is they win in this new role Sunday.
Here are 10 things they must do to make that happen:
1. Run.The Browns have been strong against the run this season. The Jaguars struggled to do this against the Chargers, but they'll need to do it Sunday to control possession in what likely will be difficult conditions.
2. Get Danny Shelton blocked.Blocking the Browns' nose tackle is key. Will the Jaguars leave Brandon Linder at center to handle Shelton? Will they move Linder to guard and move Tyler Shatley to center because of an injury to guard Patrick Omameh? That will be a pregame storyline Sunday.
3. Connect deep.Before Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles threw two awful interceptions Sunday against the Chargers, he had one of the better deep passing games of his career. Only one connected; three others were dropped – or were at least catchable. With stacking to stop the Jaguars' running game, such opportunities will be there every week. This is a good week to start connecting.
4. Make plays outside the Xs and Os.This applies to Bortles. He will be playing with rookie Keelan Cole, and perhaps rookie Dede Westbrook – in addition to veteran Marqise Lee at receiver. Bortles escaped and ran effectively against the Chargers. Given the conditions and the Jaguars' injury situation, he may need to do it again Sunday.
5. Disrupt Kizer. Teams have pressured the rookie into mistakes all season. The Jaguars have been one of the NFL's best at disrupting and turning disruption into points. Make that formula work Sunday.
6. Get ahead early. The Browns have lost a bunch of games by one-sided margins. With a rookie quarterback and a struggling passing game, they're not built to come from behind. Get ahead and turn up the pressure.
7. Stop the run.When the Browns have been productive offensively this season, they have run comparatively well. They rushed for more than 200 yards against Detroit last Sunday – and led late in the third quarter. The good news for the Jaguars on this front: they have improved against the run in the last two weeks since acquiring defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in a bye-week trade with the Bills.
8. Weather the weather.It's going to be cold. And windy. And possibly wet. Sunday's game won't just be about Jaguars players handling the cold, it will be about not committing turnovers in it. If the Jaguars can avoid those, they should win.
9. Score defensively.The Jaguars have four defensive touchdowns this season, and nearly scored two more last week. Points could be at a premium Sunday, and defensive touchdown – or one set up by the defense – could be the game-turning moment in a tight game.
10. Back up the swag.Jaguars are confident, particularly on defense. As evidenced by safety Tashaun Gipson's comments this week regarding his former team (hint: it's the Browns), they're unafraid to voice that confidence. That's fine, but swag must be backed up. So … back it up.