JACKSONVILLE – We're beyond the "must-win" stuff now.
Not that a victory over the Houston Texans Sunday wouldn't be positive – and it would certainly get the Jaguars at least back to the fringe of the AFC South conversation.
But for the Jaguars, Sunday isn't about the standings.
Sunday is simply about playing better.
Sunday is about giving themselves a chance.
The Jaguars, after doing just that twice in an encouraging 1-1 start, haven't done that nearly enough the last two weeks. The good feeling of early September vanished as a result.
It vanished because a young defense is struggling in a different way each week. It vanished because an improved offense hasn't been consistent enough to counter that struggling defense. It vanished because a young team is now an injured, young team and all that that implies.
But 1-3 doesn't mean the season is over, and 2-3 would feel dramatically better than 1-4. Even if Sunday isn't about the standings, the Jaguars need that dramatically better feeling.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to get it:
1.Pressure Deshaun Watson … This is always first when playing the Texans. Watson is a franchise-level quarterback but he tends to hold the ball too long trying to make plays downfield – a tendency that could help a Jaguars pass rush that has four sacks in four games this season. An all-blitz, all-the-time game plan won't likely be the Jaguars' approach. Still, they must pressure Watson somehow. And then they must …
2. … tackle Watson. This is one of the NFL's toughest tasks. His escapability and strength gives him rare ability to extend plays, and he has frustrated past Jaguars defenses. If the Jaguars can get to Watson, they must tackle him more consistently than they have in the past.
3.Withstand the emotional surge. The Texans fired Head Coach Bill O'Brien Monday. With such a move often comes a short-term emotional surge and urgency; witness the Jaguars' 38-17 victory over Tennessee in Doug Marrone's first game as interim head coach in 2016. Look for the Texans to have a similar reaction under interim Head Coach Romeo Crennel. The Jaguars must be ready for that.
4.Cover. This won't be easy. The Texans' receivers – Will Fuller V, in particular – are capable even without Hopkins, and a young Jaguars secondary got younger this week when nickelback D.J. Hayden was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
5.Stop the run. This is more of an issue now than before the Jaguars allowed the Cincinnati Bengals 205 yards rushing a week ago. If linebacker Myles Jack is hampered or out with the ankle injury that forced him from the Cincinnati game, it's even more of an issue. But Texans are struggling to run. Stopping them won't be easy, but it's doable. Even without Jack, the Jaguars must do it.
6.Keep Minshew's attempts down. Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II threw 20 passes in a Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. He has thrown 45, 42 and 40 in the subsequent three-game losing streak. Around 20 attempts? Very good. Around 40-to-45? Not very good.
7.Keep the game close enough to run. This is connected with No. 6. To keep Minshew's attempts down, the score must be manageable. The Jaguars are a better team when running effectively. Rookie running back James Robinson has run very effectively very consistently. The Jaguars need to keep feeding Robinson, but they must keep the score manageable enough to do that.
8.Win turnovers. It's hard to see this team winning when it doesn't. They kept the statistic even against Cincinnati and it wasn't enough. Creating turnovers is tough when the pass rush is struggling, so the Jaguars may need some good fortune on this front. Or they may need an above-the-Xs-and-Os play such as Jack's end-zone interception against the Bengals. However they do it, they must do it.
9.Convert third downs. The Jaguars were leading the NFL in third-down conversions at 62.5 percent through two games and were a play or two from being 2-0. They have converted 5-of-20 over the last two weeks and have been down by double digits much of the second half in each game. That's no coincidence.
10.Get a key stop or two. The Jaguars kept the Bengals game manageable with a key stop or two in the first-half last week. They couldn't get the Bengals off the field in the second half and Cincinnati took control. Thought the Jaguars probably won't shut out teams this season, they absolutely have shown the ability to get some key second-half stops. They did it in Weeks 1 and 2. They must do it again Sunday.