JACKSONVILLE – The quarterback is back.
Nick Foles will start there for the Jaguars for the first time since sustaining a broken clavicle in Week 1, and that's unquestionably a major storyline for Jaguars-Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Sunday.
Can Foles do for the Jaguars what he did in Philadelphia the past two seasons?
Can he be the clutch late-season performer he was in 2017 when leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl title? Or in 2018, when he led the Eagles on a late-season playoff push?
Those questions now define a Jaguars season that has been weirder and full of more drama than anyone imagined when the season began.
Who imagined rookie Gardner Minshew II would play in Foles' place and capture the imaginations locally and nationally while keeping postseason hopes alive? Who imagined cornerback Jalen Ramsey would do what he did and eventually be gone by midseason?
Those stories helped define the season's first nine games.
Those stories are behind the Jaguars now. The Jaguars begin the last seven games on the edge of the AFC playoff chase. They have a chance at the postseason. They remain confident Foles – their captain, their quarterback – can bring to Jacksonville what he famously brought to Philadelphia the past two seasons.
That confidence is encouraging, but Sunday is critical to maintaining that confidence.
If the Jaguars win in Indianapolis, they will move into second place in the AFC South and very much into the postseason conversation. If they lose, the final six games will be about mathematics and miracles.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do Sunday to make sure the former happens:
1.Believe in Nick. Wait … wasn't this believe in Minshew most of the last eight weeks? Yes, but that was then, and this is now. The locker room believed in Foles throughout training camp and preseason, and players clearly still believe. The respect for the former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player is real. The Jaguars must ride that confidence. He's their hope.
2.Play Foles Football. Minshew was exciting, bringing Mania and Magic to the offense. Foles is more efficient – i.e., working the pocket, distributing, making quick reads, getting the ball out quickly and on time. This will be an offense more by design, which should benefit an offensive line that looked worse at times than it really was with Minshew holding the ball longer than necessary.
3.Stop Marlon Mack. This isn't the high-flying Colts offense of the past two decades. The Colts now are best when leaning on the run and putting starter Jacoby Brissett in manageable down-and-distance situations. The Jaguars have been inconsistent against the run this season, but the linebacker corps is healthy for the first time in more than a month. That must benefit the Jaguars Sunday and moving forward.
4.Get a lead. This has been a key for the Jaguars much of the season. Don't look for it to change. This defense isn't great against the run, but it rushes the passer exceptionally well. The offense must get the defense leads and let the pass rush force pressure and takeaways. Speaking of which …
5.Force takeaways. The Jaguars have lost just once when forcing a takeaway this season. All NFL teams are better the more they take the ball away and the less they give it away. But this Jaguars team rises and falls on the statistic.
6.Protect Foles. Remember how we said the offensive line sometimes looked worse than it was in the first nine games? That was true, but it was still too inconsistent. Foles isn't as mobile as Minshew. If the line allows pressure, he won't create as much in the face of the rush.
7.Break one. Leonard Fournette has been one of the NFL's best running backs this season, but his season hasn't been about grinding three-or-four-yard carries as much it has been about big plays. This line hasn't been consistent enough the three-to-four-yarders, but it has given Fournette a chance to break off long runs. That's where he has been able to tilt momentum toward the Jaguars.
8.Work the middle of the field. This was largely absent from the passing offense the first nine games. A lack of productivity at tight end was a major reason. The Jaguars somehow, someway need to produce in the middle of the field to prevent teams from doubling outside receivers.
9.Get the quarterback down. This proved problematic against the Houston Texans two weeks ago, when quarterback Deshaun Watson routinely turned potential sacks into big plays. No quarterback in the NFL does this at the level of Watson, but be assured that finishing the pass rush will be a focus this week for the Jaguars.
10.Punch it in. This will be a priority until it's not. The Jaguars rank 30th in the NFL scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Foles' presence could help, but the inability to run in goal-line situations also has hurt. Whatever the reason, the Jaguars must stop settling for field goals. Results here could determine success or failure over the final seven games.