JACKSONVILLE – Must is the word of the week.
However we described recent Jaguars games – important, critical, need-to-win – this much is clear as they prepare to open the second half of the 2018 season:
Sunday's game at Indianapolis is a "must-win."
The Jaguars (3-5), after all, are tied for third in the AFC South with the Colts – and trail the division-leading Houston Texans (6-3) by two and a half games with the Texans holding a tiebreaker advantage because of a Week 7 victory at Jacksonville.
That makes the Jaguars' chances of repeating as division champions remote. Considering the Jaguars are 0-2 in the South, another division loss would be all-but impossible to overcome.
Their chances at a wild-card berth in the AFC are better, with the Jaguars two games behind the Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) for the conference's sixth and final seed. Three teams are between the Jaguars and Bengals – the Miami Dolphins (5-4), Tennessee Titans (4-4) and Baltimore Ravens (4-5) – so while the Jaguars aren't in an ideal circumstance for a wild-card, they remain in contention.
But forget worrying about what other teams must do to enhance the Jaguars' hopes. The only way for the Jaguars to turn their remote chances into a contending December is to win a lot in November – and the only way to win a lot of games is to first win one game.
The Jaguars haven't done that in far too long. They haven'tcompetedin far too long, losing all four games in October while leading just 16 minutes and 21 seconds. They scored just six first-half points during the month. They trailed by at least 10 points in all four games and never held a second-half lead.
How do the Jaguars turn that around Sunday? How do they beat Indianapolis?
Here are 10 things:
1.Get Leonard Fournette on the field.If not now, when?
2.Get the running backs involved – and productive.The backs have yet to rush for 100 or more yards in a game as a group this season. If Fournette – as expected – plays Sunday after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury, the back trio of Fournette, Carlos Hyde and T.Y. Yeldon becomes the team's best skill-position group. The hope for the offense in the final eight games is that that trio can play – and produce – like it.
3.Play DJ Chark Jr. – and use him.Forget the end-zone drop in London. The rookie is the one member of the receiving corps who might eventually be elite. It's time to accelerate the process.
4.Score early.The Jaguars haven't overcome a deficit of any size yet this season – and the closest they've come was when they cut an 11-point lead to six in a Week 8 loss to the Eagles. The last time they scored a second-half touchdown to tie or take the lead was in a Week 12 loss at Arizona last season. This isn't a come-from-behind team.
5.Score (twice) early.While the Jaguars have struggled to overcome deficits, they have been good protecting the lead. They have led by double digits in the first half three times this season, winning all three games – at the New York Giants, home against New England and home against the New York Jets. Getting a lead would be great. Getting up by two scores would be better because it would mean getting the defense in pass-rush situations. Those have been too rare this season.
6.Pressure Andrew Luck.The Colts' quarterback is back to elite after missing 2017 with a shoulder issue. Pressuring him, while key, won't be easy: A Colts offensive line that allowed the Jaguars 14 sacks in two games last season has allowed 10 in eight games this season. Still, even if Sunday isn't Sacksonville Revisited, then pressuring Luck into quick throws remains critical.
7.Score a defensive touchdown.The Jaguars had seven last season, eight including the postseason. They have one this season – a 32-yard interception return by linebacker Myles Jack in Week 1. These are tough to get when you're trailing, but this defense is going to need to do tough things for this team to salvage the season.
8.Gut it out.This team's not going to win pretty. It's probably not going to win a lot of games by double digits considering the current state of the offense. The alternative? Figure out how to win close games, which is something the Jaguars have done just once this season – a 20-16 victory over the Giants in Week 1.
9.Slow Marlon Mack.The Colts' second-year veteran running back has rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown per game in the last three weeks. The Jaguars are 24thin the NFL in rushing at 123.25 yards per game. Part of the Jaguars' run-defense issue is they have trailed in the fourth quarter in five of eight games; teams run more late when they're leading. But the defense also has been too vulnerable against the run at too many key times. Mack will test that area.
10.Win the turnover statistic.The Jaguars were plus-10 in this category last season and played in the AFC Championship Game. They are minus-11 this season and facing a must-win situation in Week 8. That's no coincidence.