JACKSONVILLE – This one suddenly feels big.
We're not talking season-ending stuff here. It's too early for such things, and a victory at Jerry's World Sunday clinches nothing for the Jaguars – just as a loss in no way ends their season.
Still, the Jaguars' game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium at 4:25 p.m. Sunday just feels big – for a bunch of very real reasons.
It's a road game. It's a game against a team that – though clearly struggling offensively – correctly believes it's very much alive in the chase for the NFC East title.
Those elements make Sunday tricky for the Jaguars.
What makes it feel big is what's going on around the organization:
A slew of injuries at running back. Another slew of injuries on the offensive line. A big injury at offensive injuries.
Add in last Sunday's a turnover-plagued, one-sided loss at Kansas City last week and the Cowboys game feels big – and a lot trickier than it might have seemed had the Jaguars been a healthy 4-1 entering Sunday rather than a limping 3-2.
This isn't an easy matchup, but it's one the Jaguars must win to assure staying even with the Tennessee Titans. And it's one they must win to assure remaining ahead of the Houston Texans entering what suddenly looks like an important AFC South game next Sunday at TIAA Bank Field.
Yes, the Jaguars need to win this big-feeling game in Texas Sunday.
Here are 10 things they must do to make that happen:
1.Do. Not. Turn. The. Ball. Over. Much went wrong in Kansas City last week. Topping the list: five giveaways, including four interceptions from quarterback Blake Bortles. The Jaguars' giveaway-takeaway ratio this season: minus-seven. If the 2018 Jaguars start reversing that they will start feeling a lot more like the '17 team AFC South champions.
2.Stop Zeke … The Cowboys don't throw well, but they do run well. Stopping running back Ezekiel Elliott is Priority One defensively.
3. … and sack Dak … The Jaguars have 11 sacks through five games after finishing second in the NFL with 55 last season. If they can stop Elliott, they can pressure quarterback Dan Prescott against a Cowboys offensive line that isn't playing at the level that made it the NFL's best line in 2016.
4…. and force turnovers. Nos. 2 and 3 all lead to No. 4. The Jaguars have five takeaways this season after finishing second in the NFL with 33 last season. If they can pressure Prescott, this could be the week – at last – that the Jaguars start turning takeaways into field position and points.
5.Find a running rhythm. The backfield will look new Sunday – as in, really new. With running back Leonard Fournette missing a fourth game in five weeks with a hamstring issue, look for T.J. Yeldon to start with newly signed Jamaal Charles and Dave Williams active. Yeldon has played very well in Fournette's absence. Can Charles – a 31-year-old four-time Pro Bowl selection give the Jaguars enough carries to allow the Jaguars to run as effectively as often as they want? That needs to be the case.
6.Bring Good Blake. The whole "Good Blake/Bad Blake" thing regarding Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has grown tiresome, but hey: Bortles (four interceptions) and the Jaguars' offense really were bad against Chiefs. The Cowboys' offense isn't as dangerous as the Chiefs, but the offense must play better for the Jaguars to win Sunday.
7.Get the front blocked. Want a hint about why Bortles struggled to the degree he did against the Chiefs? Five sacks and 11 hurries by the Chiefs' defensive front – and the 11 hurries is probably kind to the Jaguars' offensive line. The Jaguars allowed 16 hurries in four games before that. If Bortles is going to be good, he can't be pressured 16 times. The offensive line is beat up. Left tackle Josh Walker will be making his first career start. Still, if the Jaguars are to win, the group must play better this week.
8.Get open, and make plays. The Jaguars' running backs are beat up. So are the tight ends. The Jaguars' wide receivers – Donte Moncrief, DJ Chark Jr., Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook – have flashed this season. They need to do more than that Sunday.
9.Get ahead early. The Jaguars have led 13-3, 24-3 and 18-0 in their three victories this season. They haven't trailed in a game they have won, and they haven't led in a game they have lost. If this defense is leading, it makes things brutal for opposing offenses.
10.Don't throw 61 passes. Just don't.