JACKSONVILLE – If this feels big, there's a reason:
Yes, it's too early to call the Jaguars' prime-time game against the Miami Dolphins at TIAA Bank Field Thursday a must-win situation, but it feels something like that.
The Jaguars enter the game 1-1, having surprised – and proven wrong – observers who believed the team would focus more this season on the 2021 NFL Draft than winning. The first two 2020 regular-season games – a Week 1 victory over preseason-playoff favorite Indianapolis and a narrow Week 2 loss to 2019 AFC runner-up Tennessee – have many of those same observers believing the Jaguars can contend.
But to contend, teams must do more than split games. They must win consistently, and they must establish that they will win consistently at home.
And yes … the Jaguars also must fare well in the coming weeks. The Jaguars' second-half schedule is loaded with likely postseason contenders and they likely must fare well early against a schedule that includes winless Miami, Cincinnati, Houston and Detroit to have a chance to contend late.
That stretch begins Thursday night, which is another reason this feels at least something like a must-win game. It's a prime-time, nationally-televised game – the only one on the Jaguars' 2020 schedule. How to show the observers and national types they were wrong? How do the Jaguars show they really can contend?
There's no better way than to win on national television.
Here are 10 things they must do for that to happen:
1.Keep distributing … Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II has thrown six touchdown passes in two games – to five different receivers. New coordinator Jay Gruden's offense is based on getting many receivers many touches in many good situations. The Jaguars must remain in that vein.
2. … but make good choices. As good as he has been, Minshew continues to have a costly error or two a game. His 20-yard sack against the Titans last week when he should have thrown incomplete was the sort of decision he can't happen. Minshew has improved dramatically early this season. Better in-pocket decisions remain a step he must take.
3.Get a lead. The Jaguars have led just 5:56 this season – the last 5:56 of the victory over the Colts. They overcame four deficits to win that game – and they trailed Tennessee by 14 points three times and another time by 13. They've shown they're resilient, but it's hard to win consistently always coming from behind. Really hard.
4.Run. Minshew is the big story around the Jaguars these days, and understandably so. But the offense was at its best against Tennessee Sunday when rookie running back James Robinson started running effectively in the second half. This offense must run to be effective.
5.Convert in the red zone … The Jaguars have scored touchdowns on six of seven red-zone possessions this season. That pace is unsustainable, but this team must take advantage of opportunities when they're there.
6…. and convert third downs. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden correctly noted this week that third-down efficiency was the most important Jaguars offensive statistic this season. They lead the NFL in the category, converting 62.5 of their third downs into first downs. That's also unsustainable, but the Jaguars must also stay strong in this area to continue their early offensive success.
7.Win turnovers. They won this statistic 2-0 in Week 1 and won. They lost this statistic 2-0 in Week 2 and lost. That pattern figures to hold this season.
8.Feed off the crowd. Really? In the season of COVID-19? Yes. The Jaguars are one of the NFL few teams with fans in the stands at home games – and those fans gave the team energy in the Week 1 victory over Indianapolis. More fans are believing in this team than before. They'll be ready for prime time. The Jaguars must play well enough to make them a factor.
9.Sack Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Jaguars have two sacks in two games. A huge reason for that is they have led just under six minutes, and it's had to rush the passer when you're always behind. But Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, while experienced and capable of monster games, also can be pressured into mistakes. No better time for the Jaguars to break out of their sack struggles than Thursday.
10.Believe. It remains a little corny, but it remains a key for this young Jaguars team. They believe in each other. They play together. They don't point fingers or fight when things go bad. They keep playing. And keep believing. So far, so good. This team can't lose that feeling and expect to win.