JACKSONVILLE – These last two still matter. A lot.
The Jaguars' season has been long and weird – and that was true before Jaguars Owner Shad Khan dismissed Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin Wednesday night. There have been ups and downs. There has been off-field noise. There have been big victories. There have been brutal, ugly defeats.
Yet, somewhat amazingly, the Jaguars have a very real chance to finish with seven victories. They need to win their final two games – against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta Sunday and at home against the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season finale.
If they do, they will finish 7-9, their second-best record in the last nine seasons.
That wouldn't be great, and it would say a lot about the struggles of the last decade, but it would also be some measure of accomplishment considering what this team has endured this season.
The games are winnable, but difficult. The Falcons have been up and down this season, and the Colts are struggling lately. Those things can also be said about the Jaguars, which is why the final two games being winnable offers no guarantee that they in fact will be won.
The Jaguars enter Sunday with on-field momentum, having rallied to beat the Oakland Raiders last week in the Raiders' final game in Oakland. That was their first victory after five consecutive losses by at least 17 or more points, so it's not a lot of momentum. But it is the most momentum the Jaguars have had in a couple of months.
Can the Jaguars maintain it? Can they beat a Falcons team that started the season miserably slow before beating two of the NFL's best teams – the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers – on the road in the second half of the season? Yes, they can.
But they'll have to play better than they have in nearly two months.
And here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to do it:
1.Stay focused. There's noise in the system. That has been true all season and it has been really true this week. Can the Jaguars stay focused through the cacophony? If they're to beat Atlanta, they must.
2.Stay gritty. The Jaguars showed remarkable grit and guts rallying from a 13-point second-half deficit against Oakland this past Sunday. Can they keep staying together in a lost, weird season? If they're to beat Atlanta, they must.
3.Start faster. early. Of quarterback Gardner Minshew II's five victories this season, three have been come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter. He said this week he always has played better as games continued. He also noted that the Jaguars must work toward starting faster. The second part is important. Drama is great, but it's hard to live like that in the NFL.
4.Slow Julio Jones. The Falcons targeted the All-Pro receiver 22 times last Sunday, so no defense is likely to shut him out. But the Jaguars must keep Jones from defining the game.
5.Score touchdowns, not field goals – particularly early. This ties into the slow starts discussed above. The Jaguars scored just 19 first-half points in the last six games. When they have moved into scoring territory early in games recently, they have settled too often for field goals. The Jaguars need to get early leads and you get early leads with touchdowns.
6.Maintain momentum. The Jaguars' second half against the Raiders was by far their best half in weeks. They outscored the Raiders 17-0 and the energy/camaraderie in the post-game locker room was notable for a team out of the postseason. This feels like a team still playing focused and with enough effort to win. That's Sunday's challenge.
7.Ride Minshew. If Minshew Mania wasn't buried, there was some dirt in the hole at halftime in Oakland. But suddenly Minshew showed the same late-game flair Sunday as he had early in the season. The rookie has something. Even if it's hard to define. He has something.
8.Feed wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. He needs 44 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for the season and two touchdowns to reach double digits in that category. But it's not statistics that make Chark critical. It's that the Jaguars' offense is so much better – and explosive when he's involved.
9.Get the Falcons' defensive line blocked. The Falcons have been a significantly better team in the last six games than the first eight. An improved defense is a major reason, and an improved pass rush is a major reason for the defensive improvement
10.Stop.The.Run. This will remain a key the rest of the season – as it has been all season. The Jaguars played their best second half in months Sunday, doing so because they stuffed Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and held him to 37 yards rushing in the final two quarters. It was the Jaguars' best performance against the run since late October. It's no coincidence it was their first victory since then, too. Whatever else the Jaguars do or don't do, success or failure starts with stopping the run.