JACKSONVILLE – The thing now is to finish strong – as strong as possible, anyway.
Think of it:
As much as the Jaguars have been through this season – as much debate as there has been about whether the young players are developing, and about whether the team is improving – the Jaguars have a very real opportunity to finish feeling good about themselves.
They can finish with a two-game winning streak.
They can finish playing their best football of the season.
They can finish with a victory over a team that contended much of the season – and that remains in contention in the final week.
They can finish with three victories in their last five games, and they can do all of those things by beating their AFC South rival, the Houston Texans, in the regular-season finale.
They won't be favored to do it, and even if they do it, it likely will be a blip on the radar of many national observers. The Jaguars, after all, would still finish 4-12, which would be the same as last year's record in Head Coach Gus Bradley's first season.
But in the context of this season – and perhaps next season – a victory would matter. It would give further credence to the idea that the team indeed has improved. It would mean the team had played competitively yet again, which is something it has done far more often this season than last, particularly since a Week 10 bye week.
Plus, it would just plain feel good, and it would darned sure mean momentum carried into the offseason.
How much momentum actually helps is admittedly debatable. The Jaguars have won late-season games before only to have sub-par seasons the following year.
But if you look at this team, with Bradley ending his second season and beginning his third and with a slew of rookies and young players showing real signs of development late this season – then you look at the energy of the post-game celebration after a victory over Tennessee last Thursday …
Well, if you look at those things you can't help but think finishing strong would mean momentum for this team, and that momentum would matter.
And with those things in mind, here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday …
1.Protect the ball.This is back to No. 1. Blake Bortles didn't throw an interception last Thursday against the Titans. That was the second time in four games he went without an interception. The Jaguars won both of the games.
2.Block J.J. Watt.This barely needs an explanation anymore.
2a. OK, we'll explain. Watt is the Texans' defensive end. He's great. He's otherworldly. He had three sacks the last time the teams played, and although he didn't overwhelm the entire game, three sacks are three sacks. He affects things more than any other defensive player in the NFL. You must get him blocked and you can't design plays that leave him unattended (more on this later).
3.Stop Arian Foster.The Texans want to control tempo with Foster. When the teams played in Jacksonville December 7, he rushed for 127 yards on 24 carries. That helped limit the Jaguars' pass rush. Stop Foster and you get your strength – the defensive line – in position to be strong.
4.Pressure Case Keenum.Yes, you must stop Foster first. If you do, the reward is the Texans are playing their fourth quarterback of the season. Injuries have decimated the Texans at the position and Keenum is expected to start the finale. Keenum's not bad. He earned his first NFL victory last week. But he's young. Young quarterback make mistakes. Pressure him. The opportunity for big plays defensively is real.
5.Feed Marqise Lee.OK, "feed" may be a bit much, because Lee's not at the stage where you lock in and feed him the ball. But, since a Week 10 bye the rookie wide receiver has been the team's most dangerous offensive weapon. He has earned opportunities, and besides, he's getting to be fun to watch. Get him the ball.
6.Get Toby Gerhart carries.What a difference three weeks makes. Few would have considered this a must-do a month ago. Or three weeks ago. But in the last two weeks, Gerhart has run with power, giving the Jaguars yards after carry and getting them into some third-and-manageable situations. The more of those for a rookie quarterback the better.
7.Pass block!!!This hasn't been the disaster many well-informed media members believe, but neither has it been good enough. There have been too many times when rushers come free unblocked (remember we mentioned this when discussing Watt? You must account for him). Whether the unblocked rushers in recent weeks have been about communication, mental errors or whatever … it has to improve.
8.Dirt the ball.This hasn't been as much of a thing as last week. Maybe we moved on to another topic as Christmas approached. Still, Blake Bortles has to help the offensive line more. He improved here against the Titans. He has to continue to do so.
9.Block J.J. Watt. Have we mentioned the need to know he's on the field?
10.Believe …Yeah, it keeps sounding corny, but it keeps being true. The players on this team believe in each other, in Head Coach Gus Bradley – yes, even in "Victory," as evidenced by the post-game giddiness after each victory. Whatever they believe in, this team remains together. No reason to think that will change Sunday.
Take a closer look at the Jaguars Week 17 opponent, the Houston Texans.