JACKSONVILLE – The end is near.
Considering the events of this Jaguars season, some might be tempted to finish that first sentence with … "at long last." Credit the Jaguars with resisting that temptation.
Indeed, that is a notable theme as the Jaguars prepare to face the Houston Texans in the 2018 regular-season finale at NRG Stadium Sunday in Houston, Texas.
Not only have they resisted playing as if waiting for a difficult season to end, they have turned in two impressive late-season victories: a shutout victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 13 and a 17-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins this past week.
Both victories came against teams in the playoff chase. Both featured two of the Jaguars' best defensive performances of the season. Both were clinched with gutty defensive efforts late in the game. Both could have gone the other way had the team given up on the season.
That hasn't happened, and that makes Sunday intriguing.
History suggests the Jaguars face a difficult task. The Texans (10-5) must win to clinch the AFC South, so they have obvious incentive; they also have the motivation of possibly playing for a first-round postseason bye. The Jaguars (5-10) have been out of the postseason for several weeks, meaning their incentives are, well …less obvious.
Yes, the task is difficult. But the Jaguars have shown the ability in recent weeks to win in this situation.
Here are 10 things they must do to make that happen Sunday:
1. Protect. Somehow.Four Week 1 offensive line starters on injured reserve is no way to go into a matchup with the Houston Texans' defensive front. But that's the Jaguars' situation. They have allowed 19 sacks in the last four games. Keeping that number from growing exponentially is Challenge No. 1 Sunday.
2. Let Bortles run.Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, after backing up Cody Kessler in Weeks 13-15, replaced Kessler in a victory over Miami last week and will start Sunday. His mobility and escapability was key in Miami. Considering the threat of Texans pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, those traits will be more important Sunday. If he can escape and hurt the Texans with his legs, maybe the Jaguars have a chance. If he can't, this matchup looks overwhelming.
3. Score a defensive touchdown.The Jaguars have done it twice this season. They have won each time. Doing this doesn't happen by accident, which brings us to …
4. ...get a lead.The Jaguars' two defensive touchdowns this season have come in the fourth quarter with the Jaguars protecting leads. The biggest difference between the 2017 Jaguars defense and the 2018 version remains sacks and turnovers, both of which happen more when a defense is playing with a lead. That hasn't happened much for the Jaguars this season, and getting ahead of the Texans won't be easy. Still, that's the formula.
5. Shut down DeAndre.Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is one of the NFL's best wide receivers. Few teams shut him down. Few teams have a cornerback as good as the Jaguars' Jalen Ramsey. The matchup of Ramsey-Hopkins always is must-watch. Sunday will be no exception.
6. Pressure Deshaun Watson.This ties back into getting a lead and scoring a defensive touchdown. The Jaguars must find a way to pressure the Texans' quarterback. That should be doable against a struggling Texans offensive line, but the Jaguars need some early points offensively to be in pass-rushing situations.
7. Run.The Jaguars have shown flashes of this in recent weeks. Sometimes the flashes have involved running back Leonard Fournette. Sometimes they have involved running back Dave Williams. Sometimes they have involved running back Carlos Hyde. Sometimes they have involved Bortles or Kessler. That's not the Fournette-centric formula many expected from this offense, but it's a formula that has at least given the Jaguars a sniff of a running game in recent weeks. A sniff, in this case, is preferable to no sniff.
8. Lean on Calais.Jaguars veteran defensive end Calais Campbell has been remarkably consistent this season despite injuries. He was remarkable last week in his best performance of the season. Is it fair to ask him to be remarkable again? Perhaps not, but remarkable from somewhere will be needed to win.
9. Lean on Dede.Second-year wide receiver Dede Westbrook has emerged as the Jaguars' best offensive/special teams weapon in recent weeks. A big day for Westbrook would be a fitting end to his impressive season of development.
10. Play with pride.They did it against Miami. They did it against Indianapolis last month. Without it, they have no chance Sunday. With it … maybe, just maybe.