First place in the AFC South on the line in Jacksonville
Perhaps it’s appropriate that Jacksonville and Houston meet with identical 3-3 records as part of a three-way tie for first in the AFC South. Because with the Jaguars and Texans so far this season, you just have no idea what you are going to get.
The Jags were expected to be AFC title contenders and started the season like it, beating the Giants and then the Patriots rather convincingly. But since they have lost three of four, including a 9-6 snoozer to the Titans and a puzzling 40-7 blowout at the hands of the Cowboys last week. The Jacksonville offense has put up three games of 480 yards or more, including two of over 500, but also barely cracked 200 yards in the losses to the Titans and Cowboys. Which team shows up this week?
The Texans have won three in a row after starting 0-3, and they’ve been consistent only in that they have played nothing but close games. Houston lost its first three games by a total of 15 points and won its next three by a total of 13. In fact, two of those wins came in overtime, and they looked headed for OT again last week until they got the benefit of the Nathan Peterman Experience and beat the Bills on a pick-6.
Houston at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Jaguars -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Expect plenty of turnovers
The Texans have turned the ball over 11 times on the season and six times during their winning streak. Last week they gave it away three times and survived only because they also took it away three times and returned one for a touchdown. And compared to the Jags, Houston actually takes good care of the ball. Jacksonville has turned it over 14 times, tied for the most in the NFL, including 10 in the last three weeks. They actually out-gained the high-powered Chiefs two weeks ago, 502-424, but lost thanks to five giveaways. Defensively, the Jags have only five takeaways (only San Francisco has fewer), but that is unlikely to continue; last season only Baltimore had more takeaways, and this defense is every bit as good as it was then. Jacksonville ranks second overall in total defense.
2. Can the Texans protect Deshaun Watson?
Houston’s second-year quarterback has been sacked 25 times, more than any other passer in the NFL. He was taken down seven times against the Colts in Week 5 and again seven times last week by the Bills. He was hit so many times running around against the Cowboys two weeks ago that he has been on the injury report with a chest injury ever since. Whether the problem is Watson holding the ball too long because of his inexperience, or breakdowns in front of him, it’s a huge issue. The division title is up for grabs if Watson can stay healthy; if he can’t, it’s hard to see the Texans remaining in the race.
3. DeAndre Hopkins vs. Jalen Ramsey
Hopkins was held to season lows in targets (6), receptions (5) and yards (63) last week by cornerback Tre'Davious White and the Bills. Yet he still ranks tied for sixth in the NFL in catches and third in yards. His 63 targets and 44 catches are more than twice as many as any of his teammates. But he’ll have his hands full getting open for the second straight week against Ramsey, who was a first-team All-Pro last season and has no problem reminding anyone who lines up across from him about it. He has no interceptions and only two passes defensed this season, but the fact is teams generally just don’t throw his way. If he can limit Hopkins the way that White did last week, it bodes well for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars’ ugly performances against the Titans and Cowboys are a concern. A team that was on the verge of the Super Bowl last season with basically the same squad should not perform like that twice in a month. Still, until Watson and the Texans cut down the sacks, it’s tough to pick them against anyone. The fact is that despite being 3–3, they are a lot closer to 0–6 than a team with a winning record. How often can they count on surviving in overtime or the opponent’s backup QB gifting them late touchdowns? They are facing Blake Bortles, so there probably will be some gifts... but not enough.