JACKSONVILLE – Things are different now.
The NFL's bye weeks are over, and Thanksgiving is over, too. And for the first time in a long time, those NFL touchstones have passed with the Jaguars very much in contention.
All of the Jaguars' goals 2017 remain very attainable, and it's time to start attaining.
The games will get tougher now, and that's true no matter the opponent. Every game will have more at stake – first a playoff position, then playoff positioning. Each goal is critically important to attain, and each goal will be more important than the last.
The Jaguars' first step in this different time: Sunday's game at the Arizona Cardinals, a much tougher game than the records and standings might indicate.
The Cardinals are 4-6. While they're an injured team that expected to be better, they remain a capable team with a veteran core. They're playing at home, and they don't yet believe their season's over. Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson …
Those are Hall-of-Fame names and Hall-of-Fame talents, and the Jaguars must go two time zones west to face them.
Things indeed are tricky as this different time begins. The Jaguars need a victory in that tricky situation to assure they remain in first place in the AFC South when November turns to December.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to make that happen:
1. Run.This is No. 1 on the offensive to-do list each week – even though the Jaguars are ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, they must run better than they have in recent weeks. The offense had its lowest rushing output of the season in a victory over the Chargers on November 12, then needed 44 carries to rush for 139 yards against Cleveland last week. The Browns' effort was better than the Chargers game. For the Jaguars to win Sunday, it must be better still.
2. Hit deep balls.Teams won't stop stacking the box against Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette. That will make extended drives difficult. But it also will mean opportunities for big plays to single-covered wide receivers. Quarterback Blake Bortles must take advantage of said opportunities.
3. Lock down Larry Fitzgerald.The future Hall of Fame wide receiver remains the Cardinals' best offensive player. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey has locked down the NFL's best receivers this season. The crafty veteran may prove Ramsey's toughest test of the season.
4. Get Dede Westbrook opportunities.The rookie's not going to save the passing game, but he showed potential early in his NFL debut last week when he caught a 28-yard pass down the left sideline. The cold, snowy conditions made it tough for Westbrook – or any other receiver – to do much more than that last week. If Westbrook can give the Jaguars a 20-yarder in each half Sunday in better conditions, that would be a huge lift for this offense.
5. Stop the run.Do this first, then do No. 6 next. That will be the Jaguars' winning formula until further notice.
6. Pressure the quarterback.This week's target is Blaine Gabbert. He's better under pressure and better overall than during his three seasons in Jacksonville, but the Cardinals' offensive line is beat up and struggling. Pressure Gabbert and there will be turnover opportunities.
7. Get the lead.The Jaguars haven't given up a lead of more than seven points this season. With this defense playing at its current level, it's hard to imagine that happening often. Get up by 10 points Sunday and get the home crowd out of the game.
8. Protect, protect, protect. When given time, Bortles has thrown accurately – and hit deep throws – in recent weeks. With a beat-up offensive line, time has been at a premium. Give Bortles time. Figure out a way.
9. Score a defensive touchdown.The Jaguars have scored five this season. Is it fair to expect the defense to keep scoring? Perhaps not, but these guys expect it from themselves. Winning the turnover battle is wrapped up in this one, too. It's hard to imagine the Cardinals winning if the Jaguars win the turnover battle; the Jaguars are too good at feeding off momentum when the defense touches the ball.
10. Stay focused.Playoff talk is in the air. The buzz in Jacksonville is real. Forget about that; follow the lead of Head Coach Doug Marrone, who said this week: "Seven games doesn't do anything for you in the NFL." Eight victories don't get you anything, either, but it gets you close – and it would set up a critical stretch of three consecutive December home games. But forget that. Getting the eighth is all that matters Sunday.