JACKSONVILLE – Minshew Mania rules.
There's no escaping it – and frankly, if you're a Jaguars observer who wants the escape?
The Jaguars (2-2) will visit the Carolina Panthers (2-2) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sunday – and when they do, most eyes in Jacksonville and a striking number of national eyes will focus upon rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
We say "most eyes" because a few eyes undoubtedly will remain on cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the continued drama around the cornerback's trade request and game status. He didn't play last week because of a back injury, and the trade request caused many observers to wonder about the reason for the absence.
As of Friday morning, the two-time Pro Bowl corner's status for Sunday remains uncertain after he didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday. Whether Ramsey plays Sunday or not, it speaks to the level of phenomenon that Minshew has become that Ramsey is no longer the Jaguars' most-prominent story.
That status belongs unquestionably with the mustache-sporting, bandana-wearing rookie – a sixth-round draft selection who has a 2-1 record as a starter since replacing injured starter Nick Foles in Week 1 and who has quarterbacked the Jaguars to victories the past two weeks.
He has done so with a rare combination of substance, style, flash and poise – but while those traits have made Minshew a national story, he's only a national story if the Jaguars keep winning. The next step: a Carolina Panthers team that is without starting quarterback Cam Newton but still has a combination of dynamic offense and dominating defense.
That makes it Mania Man's toughest test yet, and it makes it a very difficult game for the Jaguars to win.
Here are 10 things they must do to do it …
1.Believe in the 'Stache. Don't stop now. Why stop ever?
2.Slow Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers' third-year running back is fundamentally-sound, versatile, fast and tough – and he's in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player. There's a reason this entry begins with "stop" and not "slow." You don't "stop" McCaffrey because he's too good both as a runner and receiver. But you must keep him from dominating the game.
3.Don't be fooled. When Newton first sustained the foot injury that is keeping him out, some observers thought his absence would give the Jaguars a huge advantage Sunday. Beware that thought. Backup Kyle Allen has played well in Newton's place, and the Panthers have won the last two games – both on the road.
4.Don't be scared. Minshew appears more and more comfortable in the scheme by the week. He has shown a remarkable ability to make the right decisions at the right time, and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo talked this week of Minshew being able to handle whatever the coaches put in the game plan. The Jaguars must allow Minshew to stay aggressive and keep throwing whatever the situation. He has shown he can handle the responsibility.
5.Block 'em up. The Panthers have 14 sacks in the last two games. The Jaguars' offensive line didn't allow a sack in a Week 3 victory over Tennessee but allowed five in a Week 4 victory over Denver. The unit must protect Minshew better this week than last.
6.Cut.Out.The.Penalties. Seriously … do this. The Jaguars really haven't cost themselves a game with penalties this season, but this will happen at some point.
7.Pressure Allen, hit him and force fumbles. The Panthers' backup-quarterback-turned-starter has been poised and productive, leading the Panthers to road victories in the past two games. He is 3-0 as a starter, but he also has a well-documented tendency to fumble when sacked. The Jaguars' defense sacked Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota nine times but registered none in Denver last week. The Jaguars also haven't forced a sack/fumble/recovery this season. That needs to change Sunday. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars beating a disciplined team such as Carolina without forcing a turnover and getting points from it.
8.Run. The Jaguars ran their way back from a double-digit deficit last week in Denver, finishing with 269 yards rushing. That's not a realistic weekly goal, but getting running back Leonard Fournette in the 90-to-100-yard range and establishing the threat of the run? That's realistic and necessary.
9.Stay resilient. The words "resilient" has been used to describe the Jaguars this week so much it might be argued it has been overused. But the Jaguars will need resiliency Sunday on the road against the best defense it will have played all season. This game seems likely to be decided in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars won dramatically in that scenario last week. It feels like a year in which they'll be in those situations often. They must succeed in them more often than not.
10.Believe in the 'Stache. Don't stop now. Why stop ever?