The Jacksonville Jaguars, at 4-5, are inspiring among fans the kind of optimism that the team hasn’t in close to a decade.
That says a lot about how the team has underperformed. Names such as Blaine Gabbert, Mike Mularkey, and even Chad Henne (still on the roster and one injury away from being pressed into duty once more) are evocative of a vortex of despair that has surrounded the franchise since before Shad Khan bought it.
Now, of course, if the Jaguars beat the struggling and slumping San Diego Chargers in a home game, one held after Thanksgiving and one in which the Jags are favored by more than a field goal, the Jags will be at 5-6.
Half a game below .500.
The Indianapolis Colts, hosting Tampa Bay, and the Houston Texans, hosting the New Orleans Saints, are each a game up.
The ideal for the Jags is to win with both the other AFC South contenders losing, creating a three-way tie atop the standings.
How to get there, though? Below, some keys for victory.
Balanced offense, but keep San Diego guessing: The Jaguars are lucky, in that the Chargers are equally bad at stopping the run and the pass. With that in mind, they need to show a creative script on the first couple of drives, finding a way to keep the Chargers guessing. There are ways to go about it: one that comes to mind comes out of the Bill Belichick playbook during the era in which tailback Corey Dillon was in New England. The first drive, Belichick came out 5 wide and in hurry up, and didn’t let up. Dillon was integrated into the game plan on subsequent drives, yet by subverting defensive expectations, Belichick had won the game as soon as the Pats scored for the first time, setting up the run at will.
Fast Start: The Chargers are a decimated team, as racked by injuries as any squad except Baltimore. Take advantage of that. Play aggressive football, and take advantage of the callowness of the other squad’s depth, and the 1 p.m. start time for a west coast team. Dig San Diego a hole and push them in. A double-digit lead in the first quarter is exactly what is needed to make the visitors give up.
Surprises: An onside kick? A fake punt? Some new wrinkles. Yes, and yes, and yes. This is the beginning of the playoffs for the Jags, who are also a game out of the wild-card chase. The 10 days between games gave Gus Bradley and the staff ample opportunity to put new wrinkles into a familiar playbook. We will know by Sunday afternoon whether they did so or not.