JACKSONVILLE – It's in their hands now.
It once seemed improbable, maybe impossible. But the Jaguars – four games out of first place at midseason and seemingly out of postseason contention – control their playoff destiny with three games remaining in the 2022 regular season.
Just like that. That fast. In their hands.
The Jaguars (6-8), winners of two consecutive games and four of six, will play the New York Jets (7-7) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday at 8:15 p.m.
The Jaguars enter their lone scheduled prime-time game of the season one game behind the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans (7-7), who have lost four consecutive games after a 7-3 start. There are multiple scenarios in which the Jaguars can make the postseason for the first time since 2017, but the simplest is this:
If they win their final three games, they will win the AFC South.
The scenario is simple because they beat the Titans in Nashville, Tenn., in Week 14. That means if the teams finish tied for first and the Jaguars beat the Titans in the regular-season finale in Week 18, the Jaguars will win the South based on a head-to-head sweep.
The Jets game isn't a must-win for the Jaguars. But a victory guarantees they will at least keep pace with Tennessee. If they lose, their fate is out of their hands and they need the Titans to lose to either the Houston Texans Sunday or the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17 to have a chance to make Week 18 a winner-takes-the-division game.
So, yes … the Jaguars need to beat the Jets Thursday.
Here are 10 things they must do to do that:
- Keep being T-Law. Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence for the past six weeks has played like a franchise, elite quarterback – with 14 touchdowns and one interception in that span. He has been efficient much of the time and magical quite a bit, too. This is his first prime-time appearance since he began playing like the player the Jaguars selected No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.
- Protect Lawrence. The Jets' pass rush isn't as dangerous as the Jaguars faced in a Week 15 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, but it's very good. The Jaguars allowed the Cowboys just one sack. They must approach that level of protection – even without starting left tackle Cam Robinson – to give Lawrence time to beat a big-time secondary.
- Force turnovers. The Jaguars' defense isn't elite, but it has been back to early-season form in the last two games with six takeaways. Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is a big-time arm talent who can make big plays. He also will make mistakes. The Jaguars must take advantage.
- Pressure Wilson. The Jaguars' defense in recent weeks has been effective at crucial times – and it forced Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott into two key interceptions. The front must impact Wilson to get the multiple turnovers the Jaguars need.
- Break a big run or two. Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. rushed for more than 100 yards against a very good Dallas defense. That kept the Jaguars in good down-and-distance situations offensively. The Jaguars need Etienne to be effective Thursday – and to get back to breaking a 20-yard run or two a game as he did much of the first part of the season.
- Get a lead. The Jaguars have rallied from deficits of 17, 17, nine and seven in their last four victories –over Dallas, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Tennessee. That's exciting stuff. It's gutsy stuff. It's impressive stuff. It's also a hard way to win consistently.
- Convert touchdowns in the red zone. The Jaguars struggled at times in the red zone early in the season with turnovers there costing them four games. They haven't turned the ball over in the red zone since a Week 8 loss to the Denver Broncos. Not coincidentally, they are 4-2 since that game. They have scored on all eight red-zone possessions in the last two games, including five touchdowns.
- Keep Engram involved. Tight end Evan Engram has had his best back-to-back performances of the season the last two weeks. The Jaguars have combined for 76 points in those two games, their highest-scoring two-game stretch since December 2017.
- Weather the elements. It is expected to be cold Thursday. And rainy. The last time the Jaguars played in those conditions, Lawrence lost four fumbles and threw a red-zone interception in a Week 4 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jets are too good defensively to give them the ball that often.
- Stay focused. There's a lot of playoff talk. And buzz. And energy. That's cool and fun. But while the Jaguars are hot, they have played on a very thin line in their four recent victories. This team hasn't been good enough to win playing poorly this season. They must focus and continue to make big plays at key times.
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