If the absence of expectations relieves pressure, the Jaguars indeed should be relaxed this weekend.
Because make no mistake:
Almost nobody outside EverBank Field believes the Jaguars will beat the Houston Texans Sunday, and just as many believe they even have the slightest chance.
Never mind that in the NFL every team has a chance, and never mind that this is a division rival game, and in a division game – particularly in the second game of the season between division rivals – favorites and conventional wisdom are often very much defied.
Few are thinking these things, and that's understandable.
The Texans, after all, are 8-1 and coming off an image-shaping victory over Chicago in which they outphysicaled and outdefended a team known for physical defense. Many observers believe the Texans are Super Bowl favorites.
The Jaguars are 1-8, with most of their preseason goals out of reach just past the midway point of the season. Because of that, Jaguars players this week spoke of reshaping goals, and of redefining the remainder of the season. They also spoke of playing for pride, which is hardly what you want in mid-November.
But you know what? That's where the Jaguars are, so that's where they are, and that's what the Jaguars need to do – play for pride, and play realizing that while the playoffs aren't happening, that doesn't mean nothing can be attained from the season.
You can get better. You can shape the future. You can build a foundation. You can find out who can play and who can't and you can find out who wants to be here long-term and who doesn't.
You can also still win games, and that's still what professional football is about, and with that in mind, here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the Texans Sunday:
1) Believe.Almost no one else believes you can win this game. The nation is expecting an easy Texans victory. None of that matters come Sunday. Come Sunday, it's a professional football game. You're paid to make plays, and in the NFL, just because it hasn't happened already doesn't mean it can't happen Sunday.
2) Trust the road.Why have the Jaguars been so much better on the road than at home? Who knows? This week, who cares? As poorly as the Jaguars have played at home they have been competitive in every game on the road this season. You've shown you can function away from EverBank Field. Keep functioning.
3) Stop Arian Foster.The Texans at their heart are a running team. That makes Foster and the offensive line the heart of the offense. The Jaguars have done a good job stopping the run in spots this season, and they did a good job against Foster last season. This needs to be one of those spots, because if it is, the down linemen have a better chance to . . .
4) Pressure Matt Schaub.Pass rushing opportunities have been relatively scarce for the Jaguars this season. That's what happens when you trail more than you lead. But when given the chance in recent weeks, the pass rush has been better – if not always registering sacks, at least getting pressure. The Texans run well enough there may not be third-and-longs on every drive. But when they're there, you have to take advantage.
5) Run – at least a little.The Jaguars have gone six consecutive games without rushing for more than 70 yards. The last four games of that stretch were without Maurice Jones-Drew; the first two were with him. The Jaguars needed to upgrade the passing game this season, but you still need to have balance, because without it, it's very difficult to . . .
6) Throw downfield. **Blaine Gabbert has played better in the last four games, and at times, the Jaguars' offense has looked pretty effective. But too often the passes are short and to the sidelines, giving the offense a bunched-up feel. Especially on third downs, throw downfield, beyond the chains. Spread the defense out.
7) Overcome adversity.The Jaguars in most games this season have had a stretch early in which they have played well – in some cases, very well. In most games, something has gone against the Jaguars and in most games, they haven't responded well enough. All teams face tough times; the better the team, the better you overcome it.
8) Catch the ball.We'll keep saying it and saying it and saying it . . .
9) Block J.J. Watt.A lot of teams have said this this season. Not a whole lot of teams have been able to do it. The second-year veteran is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. If you don't get him blocked, he can take over the game.
10 )Play smart.The Jaguars had six personal foul penalties against the Colts. Six. That's about six too many, and it absolutely will be a focus this week. The Jaguars haven't made enough plays this season to overcome penalties in bunches. They're the sort of team that has to play smart and squeeze the most from every opportunity. Multiple incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct aren't in this team's victory formula.