JACKSONVILLE – It's about pride now, and spoiling.
That's what you'll hear around the Jaguars this week – and quite likely the next few weeks. Really, what else is there to discuss?
The Jaguars are 2-11 as this season that quarterback Blake Bortles in recent weeks correctly has called a nightmare draws to a close – and when nightmare NFL seasons draw to a close, conversation turns to spoiling and pride.
Make no mistake: The Jaguars in the three games that remain in indeed can spoil seasons. They play Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis – their three AFC South rivals – and a Jaguars victory in any of those games could well ruin the opponent's season.
And the Jaguars quite likely will play with pride. Effort has oozed from the last six losses of what is now an eight-game losing streak, and there's no indication players have any intention of not playing hard for Head Coach Gus Bradley – or for themselves.
But what else is there to discuss? Is that what we asked earlier?
Indeed it was, and there indeed are things to be gleaned from the final three weeks of this season – whatever the weeks and months after that may or may not hold. Three things must be done in the final three weeks – and of course, we are here to examine those things:
1. Blake Bortles must start – and he must steady.While the pros and cons of Bortles remaining the Jaguars' starting quarterback remain a debate among fans, the reality is he will continue starting. That's because the belief in the building remains that he is the best chance to win – and that he remains this franchise's best chance for a franchise quarterback. Whatever your opinion on the matter, it's possible – and even probable – that Bortles is the Jaguars' starting quarterback next season. Whatever the future leadership/direction of the franchise, finding a starting-level quarterback is difficult. The reality, too, is Bortles at times in two NFL seasons has been a starting-level quarterback. He has 56 touchdowns and 7,165 yards with 33 interceptions during those two seasons. He has made throws such as the touchdown to wide receiver Bryan Walters this past Sunday enough that it's not silly to believe he can do such things consistently. He must hone mechanics in the offseason. He must take the offseason and reset. Before that, he must do more than just "get through" the final three games. He steadied a bit last week against Minnesota. He must continue to do that, and do something – anything – to build confidence and belief entering the offseason. That's not as lofty a goal as the ones Bortles and the Jaguars had entering the season, but it's an important one now.
2. The defense must show it's for real.How good is the Jaguars' defense? This remains a debate because despite its fifth overall ranking in yards allowed, it has yet to be a dominant pass-rushing defense – and it doesn't force turnovers. The Jaguars struggle to pressure opposing quarterbacks with four down linemen and have just eight takeaways. One reason for these struggles is opposing teams are taking few chances, and another reason is the defensive front has just one consistent pass rusher; that's Leo Yannick Ngakoue and he's not yet overly consistent. Still, this has been a stifling defense at times – and the unit has been better-than-average at keeping this team in games. It has pieces that could help form the foundation of a very good defense, and those pieces are young, talented and ascending. Those are good signs, and the defense must keep showing them as the season closes.
3. The Jaguars must win.This, too, will continue to be debated in the coming weeks … with the Jaguars out of the postseason is it better to win, or to improve draft positioning? This is understandable considering the high-profile nature of the draft, but it's not even remotely a question for players, coaches, etc. They will coach to win the final three games and play to win the final three games – as well they should. As far as what's best for the long-term interests of the organization, the draft is such an unknown that there realistically isn't a huge statistical difference in how much a player selected at No. 3 will help you as opposed to a player selected at, say, No. 5. Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey, for example, went in those spots last season – and all have the look of elite players. In the case of the Jaguars, there's even more reason they need to win these last three games. This is a young team with improving young players who despite the record believe they're good. They believe they're close. A three-game winning streak or two victories in three games – unlikely though that scenario may seem – may not be enough to prevent offseason upheaval, but it could help provide supporting evidence to these players that the foundation is being laid for a better future than recent past. Plus, it's like they say about winning … it's better than losing.