Two of the NFL's youngest teams, and AFC South rivals, will face off on Sunday afternoon when the Houston Texans travel to Duval County to play the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It's hard to fathom that the Jaguars (2-2) are sitting atop the AFC South, tied with the Titans, less than a year removed from Urban Meyer's humiliating NFL experiment gone comically awry. And yet, here they are, the Jags, showing not just signs of competence but promise and ability as well. I guess having an actual adult (new head coach Doug Pederson) in the room really goes a long way. Jacksonville is looking for another divisional win and to snap an eight-game skid against Houston on Sunday.
Don't let the Texans' (0-3-1) goofy-looking record fool you, they're no slouch. Don't get me wrong: The Texans are not a good football team. But they aren't god-awful either. Despite being winless with a tie, Houston has been in every single game so far this season. Lovie Smith has his young Texans squad playing hard in spite of their youth and overall lack of depth. Last week, they scored 17 straight points to pull within three and almost knock off the heavily favored Chargers before eventually falling at home. This week, Houston has a great shot of finally getting into the win column.
Houston (0-3-1) at Jacksonville (2-2)
Three Things to Watch
1. Trevor Lawrence
Last year's first overall draft pick is growing up right before our very eyes. Lawrence looks to be capitalizing on the promise he showed at Clemson and in spots last year. Everything looks like it's coming together for the recently turned 23-year-old. His pocket presence and footwork have been palpably improved, his decision-making has been quicker and more efficient, and his ability to throw receivers open and fitting passes into tight windows has been impressive.
Through the first four games this season, Lawrence is completing 65 percent of his throws, with eight touchdown passes, just two interceptions, and a 99.9 passer rating. This time last season, it was a different story for the then-rookie with a 57 percent completion rate, seven interceptions, and only a 66.4 rating.
Of course, progress isn't linear, especially for young NFL quarterbacks. Last week against Philadelphia, Lawrence reverted back to his rookie days with just 174 yards, a pick, an 84.3 rating, and four lost fumbles. This week he faces a Texans pass defense that's been so-so thus far, allowing 240 yards per game (15th) and 6.5 yards per completion (13th). But the Texans' defense is aggressive, ranking in the top third in the league in blitzing rate (25 percent), sacks (11), hurries (18), and pressures (35). Lawrence will have to also keep an eye on stud rookie defensive backs Derek Stingley Jr. (CB, third overall) and Jalen Pitre (S, 37th overall), both of whom are off to great starts so far.
2. Texans' emerging running game?
It's been a long time since we've been able to say the Texans have had a reliable rushing attack — since, what, the Arian Foster days? Maybe those days are back again thanks to rookie running back Dameon Pierce. Pierce's 313 yards on the ground lead all rookies, but it's been his noticeably increasing production over the course of the young season that has impressed the Jaguars' head coach.
“Dameon is a player who I loved watching his college tape and I just love the way he runs,” Pederson said earlier this week. "This guy is a no-nonsense downhill guy. He is a load."
Pierce started the season modestly with just 33 yards on 10 carries in the season opener against Indianapolis. The next two games would see his production double to 69 yards and then 80 while averaging almost 4.5 yards a carry. Last week against the Chargers, Pierce exploded for 131 yards on just 14 carries (9.3 ypc), including a 75-yard touchdown sprint to keep the Texans in the game.
While it's certainly early in Pierce's tenure to determine if he's the man, the rook will have his hands full with a Jacksonville defense eager to reclaim its honor after getting bulldozed last week by Philadelphia. The Eagles were able to rack up 210 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, led by Miles Sanders' 131 yards and two scores. Prior to last week, the Jaguars had been stout against the run, allowing just 55 yards per game in their first three, including holding last year's rushing champ (Jonathan Taylor) to just 54 yards in a Week 2 shutout of the Colts.
3. Flying under the radar
This is the NFL's golden era of wide receivers. Never before has the league seen this many game-changing, dynamic pass-catchers at one time. Almost every team has a legit No. 1 target, and the Texans and Jaguars are no different, although the latter is somewhat new to the label.
Jacksonville's Christian Kirk (20 rec., 327 yds., 3 TDs) has very quickly become Lawrence's new favorite target, posting nearly twice as many catches as any other Jaguars wide receiver this season. Kirk spent four productive years (2,902 yds., 17 TDs) in Arizona but was always the second or third option. After signing a four-year, $72 million free-agent deal this past offseason, Kirk has proven thus far he has what it takes to be a team's primary target. He's not only on pace for a career year but for the best year of any Jacksonville wide receiver since 2015 when Allens Robinson II and Hurns each surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. Kirk is just one of three wideouts this season to have at least 60 receiving yards in each of the first four weeks, alongside Buffalo's Stefon Diggs, and Philadelphia's A.J. Brown.
Kirk and Lawrence will try to regroup after last week's poor showing against the Eagles where the duo hooked up on only two of nine intended targets.
Right now, the Jaguars look like a much more complete team, in every facet, compared to the Texans. The Jacksonville offense is potent and balanced, and the defense has been both attacking and suffocating. We just don't know what we have yet, if anything, with the Texans. I can't believe I'm typing this, but give me the Jags and the spread.
Prediction: Jaguars 28, Texans 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
*Price as of publication.