JACKSONVILLE – If this isn't exactly the expected matchup, it's still an important one.
The AFC South-leading Jaguars will play host to the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Stadium Monday. And if there's a thought that the Jaguars' first Monday Night Football appearance in a dozen years means less somehow because of an injury to the opposing quarterback …
Yes, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow – one of the NFL's best players at his position – is out for the season with a wrist injury. His absence indeed changes the Bengals, as an elite quarterback's absence changes any team.
But this game is still big for the 8-3 Jaguars. They lead the AFC South by two games over the Indianapolis Colts (6-5) and Houston Texans (6-5), but those teams are playing well in recent weeks and figure to win more than they lose late in the season. The Jaguars figure to need to keep winning consistently to win the division.
The Jaguars are also tied with the Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens for the fewest losses in the AFC, which makes the No. 1 seed in the conference a real possibility. That makes all games critical in the coming weeks.
And make no mistake:
With or without Burrow, the Bengals are tough. They have much the same roster that played in the last two AFC Championship Games. Playoff-proven teams have a way of gutting their way to late-season victories even with key players out.
Yes, this an important game for the Jaguars. And a difficult one. And because it's the first MNF game in a decade, it's one of the most high-profile games for the Jaguars in recent memory.
Here are 10 things they must do to win it:
1.Keep making plays at quarterback. The Jaguars have averaged 28 points and more than 400 yards while beating the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans the past two weeks. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has keyed that production with three rushing and three passing touchdowns. He's hot. He must stay that way Monday.
2.Let Ridley keep being Ridley. Three of wide receiver Calvin Ridley's five touchdown receptions this season have come in the last two weeks. He's developing chemistry with Lawrence. That cohesion must remain for this offense to be its best.
3.Get push. A trouble spot for the Jaguars remains short-yardage rushing. The offensive line played well in a victory over Houston last week, but interior push remains an issue.
4.Pressure Browning. Bengals quarterback Jake Browning made his first career start against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday. He's a capable, smart quarterback who likely should be more effective with a game's experience. Still, the best way to fluster an inexperienced quarterback is to pressure him into mistakes.
5.Get Allen off the edge. This plays into No. 6. The Jaguars have been very good defensively this season. They're at their best when outside linebacker Josh Allen is getting pressure. That's happened a lot for Allen, who has a career-high 12 sacks through 11 games.
6.Convert in the red zone. The Jaguars have been effective between the 20-yard-lines more often than not this season and produced their second-highest yardage total of the season last Sunday. They have stalled too often in the red zone, as was the case last week. If this offense can finish drives, the Jaguars can beat most teams.
7.Stop Mixon. The Steelers held Bengals running back Joe Mixon to a season-low 16 yards last week and the Bengals managed just 10 first downs. This likely will be a major emphasis for a Jaguars defense ranked No. 4 in the NFL against the run.
8.Force turnovers. The Jaguars didn't force a takeaway Sunday's road victory at Houston, but they're at their best defensively – and as a team – when they're forcing opponents into mistakes. They have forced a turnover in eight of 10 games and are 7-1 in those games.
9.Take away Chase. Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase isn't the Bengals' only dynamic skill player, but he's their best – and one of the best in the NFL. Chase is the sort of player who can take over a prime-time game and beat a favored team. The Jaguars may not be able to stop him completely, but they must not let him control the game.
10.Feed off the crowd. The Jaguars' last Monday Night Football game was in 2011, a loss to the San Diego Chargers. Jaguars fans have waited since then for their team to be relevant and playing regularly in prime time. Expect Monday to be frenzied.