Jags aim to clinch first playoff spot since 2007
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars aren't used to having to figure out playoff-clinching scenarios.
Fortunately, the equation is easy.
Jacksonville will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 if they beat the Houston Texans on Sunday at EverBank Field.
The Jaguars (9-4) are a game up on Tennessee for the lead in the AFC South after going 3-13 last year. They started their improbable run back in Houston in Week 1, defeating the Texans 29-7 on Sept. 10.
Since that game, Houston (4-9) has lost star defensive end J.J. Watt, electric rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and playmaking outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, as well as several other contributors to injuries.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars added stout defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in a trade with Buffalo on Oct. 28, signed punt returner Jaydon Mickens (two-time AFC special teams player of the week in seven games) and kicker Josh Lambo (16-of-17 on field goals).
The Jaguars recorded a franchise-record 10 sacks in the first meeting against Houston. The Texans started Tom Savage in that game before switching to Watson in the second half. With Savage out with a concussion, Houston coach Bill O'Brien will turn to T.J. Yates.
"They're playing at a high level," O'Brien said. "Just like every year in this league, teams get hot. Jacksonville's hot."
The Jaguars have won six of their last seven games and are coming off a 30-24 victory over visiting Seattle in a matchup of 8-4 teams, while the Texans have lost three consecutive games.
It all adds up to an easy Jaguars win, right? Well, the NFL isn't that simple.
When asked about the possibility of clinching a playoff spot Wednesday, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone quickly move away from the topic.
"You're not taking me there," Marrone said. "Nope. Not doing it. Not jumping. We are focusing on what we have to do today. We have a team coming in that is getting players back and an in-division game. They want nothing more than to beat us, as we want nothing more than to beat them. I understand it, I get the questions and everything, but I promise you none of you are going to be able to take me there."
The Texans are the reigning two-time AFC South champions and should be motivated to play spoiler against the Jaguars. O'Brien knows Houston will have to alter much of what it tried in the opener.
"You have to change it," O'Brien said. "You can't do what you did in the first game. I don't want to get into that, but you have to change up how you protect the edge of the front. You have to change up how you run the ball. You have to change up your routes. You have to change everything because nothing we did in the first game was any good."
Houston could present problems for the Jaguars in a couple ways. The Texans have a stellar pair of receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Hopkins has 1,233 receiving yards with an NFL-high 11 touchdown catches. Fuller has caught seven scores, despite missing six games.
The Jaguars counter with arguably the best corner tandem in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Ramsey (four interceptions) will likely spend most of his time on Hopkins. Bouye, who signed a five-year, $67.5-million contract with the Jaguars in March after four years with the Texans, is tied for the NFL lead in picks with six. Jaguars free safety Tashaun Gipson has four interceptions as well.
The Jaguars' defense is on pace to achieve something no other team has accomplished. Jacksonville leads the NFL in scoring defense (15.5 points), sacks (47) and takeaways (30). Per NFL Research, no team since 1970 has finished a season leading the NFL in those three categories.
Yates, who will be making his eighth career start, knows getting the ball out quick will be a point of emphasis.
"We know what type of defense we're going up against and how talented they are up front and in the backend, so we have to be sharp," Yates said. "Definitely the ball has to come out quick."
Defensively, Houston will rely on outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to be a consistent disrupting force. The fourth-year veteran and former No. 1 overall pick has nine sacks and ranks second in the NFL in tackles for loss with 20.
"He can take over a game," Marrone said. "He really can. He's an outstanding football player. They move him around quite a bit. He's someone -- there are not many players in this league, but he is one of them that can literally just dominate a game."
The Jaguars are coming off one of their best offensive performances of the season. Quarterback Blake Bortles completed 18-of-27 passes against Seattle for 268 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 123.7 passer rating. The Jaguars didn't give up a sack, while rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Bortles was asked Wednesday if it was the best performance of his career.
"I think it's definitely up there," Bortles said. "Offensively, we go out there and put up that kind of performance together, execute the way that we did, run game, pass game, against a good team, a good defense like that. We talked about the situation, doing it in December. I think it was a big game all-around."
Updated December 14, 2017