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Top 5 2011 games to watch

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We move on today in jaguars.com's look ahead to the 2011 season with perhaps the most difficult entry in this ongoing mini-series:

The five key games.

It is, frankly, an impossible task because so much is unknown. How key a game will be in early October, of course, depends largely on the team's record at the time. So it is that this story will have quite a bit of assuming and presuming, and you know what happens when you assume.

It's difficult to even think about individual match-ups, with injuries and in-season developments so critical on a weekly basis.

Still, we're in the middle of a lockout, which means we're still at least a few weeks from knowing for sure such issues as new free agents and schedules and the like. So, for now – for fun and discussion as much as anything – we'll look at what could be five key games in the Jaguars' 2011 NFL season:

1)September 11: Home against Tennessee

This is on the list for a couple of reasons, one of which is the ongoing lockout.

One of the primary questions of the off-season has been whether or not the league will get a full season in, so when writing about key games in the 2011 season, you have to at least bring up the possibility that the opener may not actually be the opener.

The guess here, though, is that it will be played as scheduled.

Assuming that's the case, the regular-season opener is big – and not just because it's a tone-setter, an AFC South game and at home. The Jaguars will need to beat Tennessee for all of those reasons, and they also need to win because there's little reason to think Tennessee will be one of the NFL's elite teams early in the season. They may be playing with a rookie quarterback, Jake Locker, and if that's the case, they'll be getting Tennessee at a time when Locker's time to learn the offense will have been extremely limited. The Titans have talent, and they're a team with veterans who know how to win. They were competitive in the first half of last season. You don't want to let them get a quick start.

But mostly for the Jaguars, the opener is important because they need to win early. The first seven games of the 2011 season feature four 2010 playoff teams – the New York Jets in Week 2, the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7. Victories during that stretch will be hard-earned and dropping the games against non-playoff teams will put more pressure on the other match-ups.

2) October 2: Home against New Orleans

Breaking down a schedule in advance requires a lot of speculation, and here we'll speculate that the Jaguars win two of their first three games. With the opponents being Tennessee, the New York Jets and the Carolina Panthers, that's reasonable enough.

If that plays out, the New Orleans game is big.

The Jaguars under that scenario would enter the match-up 2-1, with a home game the following week against Cincinnati. In that scenario, a victory over New Orleans would give the Jaguars a very real chance at a 4-1 start. That wouldn't guarantee anything, of course, particularly not with two games remaining against Indianapolis, one at Pittsburgh, one against Baltimore and one at Atlanta, but it would give them a solid foundation from which to build.

From a distance, this won't be an easy match-up for the Jaguars. The Saints' strength – the quick, high-pressure passing offense – plays into the Jaguars' weakness, but the Jaguars have a tendency to play big in such situations, particularly at home.

3) October 30: at Houston

Once again, the Jaguars' record will determine this one's importance.

But let's assume the Jaguars make it out of a rough early stretch of the season with a record of say, 4-3. That makes this late October game at Houston critical.

The Jaguars under that scenario could move to 5-3 with a road victory, then have the bye week before traveling to Indianapolis to play the Colts November 13. Playing the Colts in Indy is never easy, but Indianapolis plays host to Atlanta on November 6. Playing a home game means it won't be a brutal week for the Colts, but the Jaguars could get something of an edge with a week off.

Either way, beating the Texans will be key, and a 5-3 record entering November would put them in solid position for November, a time when the Jaguars historically have fared well under Head Coach Jack Del Rio.

On paper, that's a possibility this year, too. After the Colts, the Jaguars visit Cleveland, then play host to Houston. They likely will need to come out of that stretch at least 7-4, and not because of their recent history of struggling in December, but rather because the December schedule is difficult in 2011 whatever the recent past.

4) December 5: Home against San Diego

You can't talk about the Jaguars' potential key games in December without talking about the team's struggles in recent Decembers.

And those struggles? They've been pretty pronounced.

The Jaguars have gone 4-11 after November over the last three seasons, and they entered each of the last two Decembers with a chance to make the post-season. They went 1-4 in 2009, and after entering a December game against Indianapolis this past season at 8-5 needing a victory to clinch the AFC South, they lost the last three games to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

That almost certainly will be a storyline come December 2011.

The Jaguars in our discussion could enter December around 7-4, a record that almost certainly would have them very much in the playoff chase for a third consecutive season. The final five weeks appear to be difficult, but they also appear manageable: San Diego and Tampa Bay at home, at Atlanta and Tennessee, then home against Indianapolis.

The first game of that stretch, a home game against the Chargers, will be critical if the players and coaches don't want to spend the early part of the month continuously hearing about Decembers past. They also had a one-sided loss to the Chargers in San Diego early last season.

A victory at home against San Diego could quiet a lot of talk entering the final quarter of the season on a lot of fronts.

5) January 1: Home against Indianapolis

We finish the look at the regular season in fitting fashion: with the finale against the Colts.

There seems a very real chance this game could be for a playoff position. The NFL certainly seems to think that's possible, and the division essentially was decided in a match-up between the two in Indianapolis last December.

The Colts haven't missed the playoffs since 2001, and in five of those seasons, they had their playoff positioning clinched entering the regular-season finale. If that's the case this season, there's still a chance the Jaguars could be playing for a wild-card spot.

But the Jaguars last season were in first place in the division in December for the first time in AFC South history, and there's reason to think the Jaguars' trend is on the rise. The Colts aren't in decline, not as long as Peyton Manning is at quarterback, so the possibility is there for a season-ending showdown. Few would be surprised if this is flexed to prime-time, but we're way ahead of ourselves.

The Colts are 15-5 all-time against the Jaguars, but the games are historically close, particularly in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars beat Indianapolis, 31-28, on a 59-yard field goal by Josh Scobee early in 2010.

It might be too much to ask for such a finish to close the '11 regular-season, but it's not ridiculous to think it will be a game with post-season ramifications for both teams.

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