The team Jack Del Rio took to Houston in week four of last season was in upheaval. Del Rio was a rookie coach looking for his first win and he was doing so with a rookie quarterback making his first start.
When the roots of the "new era in Jaguars football" are traced to their beginnings, Houston is a prime destination. In the previous game, Mark Brunell sustained an elbow injury that, for all intents and purposes, ended his Jaguars career and, effectively, the first era in Jaguars football. The move into the new era, however, wasn't without its rough moments, and the Jaguars' 24-20 loss to the Texans was one of them.
It was a team with three rookies in its starting lineup. Both starting wide receivers for that game, Matt Hatchette and J.J. Stokes, were NFL re-treads. Seven players in all who were starters in that game are no longer with the Jaguars. It was a team struggling for an identity. It lacked leadership and belief. It also left Houston 0-4.
These Jaguars will go to Houston in first place in the AFC South. This Jaguars team is establishing an identity for being one of the up-and-coming teams in the league. It has a winner's attitude. It has strong leadership. It's 5-2.
"It's clearly better than it was last year," Del Rio said when asked about the mental attitude of his team. "Mental makeup, mental toughness, leadership things; we're looking for the right kind of guys who fit the profile we're after and will help make this team better. We will continue to look for those types of people."
The pursuit of "those types of people" will result in the Jaguars taking 25 players to Houston this weekend who were not on the roster when the Jaguars lost at Reliant Stadium last season. Eight players – excluding rookie kicker Josh Scobee – who will be in the starting lineup Sunday were not in the starting lineup a year ago.
Clearly, a lot more than the Jaguars' record has changed. So has the personnel, and it's uncommon for a team that's undergone that kind of dramatic roster change to experience the success on the field the Jaguars have this year.
"One of my main desires when I accepted the job was to create an environment in which people loved the game of football and were unselfish," Del Rio said. "It's about team. It's not about your rush-defense stat or your pass-defense stat."
Sunday's game could further validate Del Rio's impact on the Jaguars franchise, which experienced its fourth consecutive losing season last year. With a win over the 3-3 Texans, the Jaguars would cruise into their bye week at 6-2, alone in first place and in the hunt for one of the top two AFC playoff seeds.
Beating the Texans, however, won't be as easy for the Jaguars this Sunday as it was last December, when rookie quarterback Dave Ragone was roughed up by the Jaguars defense and the Jags coasted to a 27-0 win. Just as this is a very different Jaguars team, so is it a very improved group of Texans.
Quarterback David Carr has matured into one of the league's best passers. In his third season, Carr is third in the AFC with a 97.8 passer rating. He has a big-time, home-run pass-catcher in Andre Johnson.
It is on those two players that the Texans will stake their hopes of beating the Jaguars and joining the AFC South title race. The Texans' running game is a lowly 23rd in the league and the defense is 27th overall (25th against the run and 26th against the pass).
"We respect everybody we play. Every team has good football players capable of beating you. Our approach every week is to prepare hard and go in and compete. We want to remain steady in our approach. The effort continues to be very good," Del Rio said.