Jaguars look for a fifth straight victory and to stay atop the AFC South when they head to the desert to face a desperate Cardinals team
What a time to be Tom Coughlin. The former New York Giants head coach, run out of town after the 2015 season, is executive vice president of football operations with the Jaguars. It’s his NFL career coming full circle, back with the team he first coached and brought to the AFC Championship Game twice.
Coughlin’s tenure also was the last time the Jags won their division. But after 18 years (and a 10-year playoff drought) the team now appears to be making a push for the AFC South title. At 7-3, a win Sunday gets the Jaguars to a worst-case 8-8 record for a conference in which the second wild card team is currently 5-5. It also could leave them two games up on their closest competition, the Tennessee Titans, depending on how they fare on the road against the Indianapolis Colts.
Coughlin and first-year head coach Doug Marrone have accomplished this feat with a remarkable rookie running back, Leonard Fournette, and a defense that’s finally performing to expectations. But the duo hasn’t even radically reformed the roster yet and is working with a starting quarterback, Blake Bortles, widely considered one of the worst in the league.
Meanwhile, Coughlin’s Giants, sporting a 2-9 record, are on the verge of complete implosion. Internal replacement Ben McAdoo appears on the verge of losing his job along with general manager Jerry Reese. Less than two years after Coughlin was helped out the door, holding his two Super Bowl rings the Giants appear nowhere close to repeating his success.
Coughlin, for his part, claims it was time for a change and does not wish the Giants any ill will in public. But you’ve got to think, especially if the Jaguars keep winning, there’s a small sense of private self-satisfaction here.
In the meantime, Coughlin’s Jags turn to Arizona in a bid to continue their surprising success down in the desert.
Jacksonville at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 26 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Jaguars -5.5
1. Which Adrian Peterson will show up?
Despite the season-ending injury to quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cardinals are somehow alive by a thread in the NFC playoff race. That’s in large part due to the boost given them by Peterson (above, right), who’s jump-started the running game in wins against the Buccaneers and 49ers.
The problem with Peterson is it’s been a case of feast or famine. In those two victories? He’s got 293 rushing yards and two touchdowns. But in the three other games he’s been on the roster (all of them losses)? Peterson has totaled just 76 yards, a measly 1.7 yards per carry and no touchdowns.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Cardinals got outscored in those contests 86-37. While Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are reasonable backups, they’re not going to make the difference on offense. Their throws also are a step down for Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (who’s still somehow kept up his production, ranking third in the NFL with 69 receptions).
No, Peterson is clearly the key, a guy who can open up the passing game if the Jags' defensive front seven is forced to respect the run. The Jags’ run defense is middling, ranking 18th in the NFL as opposed to their-league leading pass defense (which will be without starting cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who jammed his hand in practice on Friday).
Can Peterson have a breakthrough game? He’s sitting on 99 rushing touchdowns, poised to be just the ninth player in NFL history to get to 100.
The key may lie with Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, a gargantuan upgrade to the defense once acquired from the Buffalo Bills last month. Since Dareus came on board, the Jags have allowed less than 100 yards rushing in three straight games while giving up just a total of 31 points.
One side is going to have to give way. The Cards must have the “good” Peterson show up for them to have a chance.
2. Cardinals’ Blaine Gabbert and his offensive line vs. Jaguars' front seven
Gabbert, hungry for revenge against a Jaguars team that released him years ago will be itching to challenge their defense. But will he have enough time to throw?
The Jags have an NFL-leading 40 sacks and are facing an offensive line that’s allowed 28 (11th in the NFL). Gabbert is not known for being evasive in the pocket and there’s perhaps no team in the league with more film to exploit his weaknesses.
Twice this year, the team has broken through with 10 sacks and those have been against backup quarterbacks like Gabbert: Houston’s Tom Savage (sacked six times before Deshaun Watson came in the game back in September) and the Colts’ Jacoby Brissett.
It’s yet another challenge for a Cardinals O-line that’s been burdened the second star running back David Johnson went down in Week 1. If they fail to make holes for Peterson and lets the Jags’ D-Line slip through?
It’s going to be a rout by halftime.
3. Blake Bortles: minimizing mistakes
The Jags have gone through great pains this season to make Bortles more of a game manager. The success of Leonard Fournette has helped immensely, limiting the need for Bortles to make dangerous throws. He has just seven interceptions through 10 games this season compared to 13 a year ago.
But Bortles also is on track for more than 500 fewer pass yards than he had last year. It’s clear the Jags view him as their best option under center but not their primary option to move the ball on offense.
It’s no coincidence four of those seven picks for Bortles have come in the Jags’ three losses. He’s also tied for ninth in the NFL with six fumbles; three of them (one lost) coming when Jacksonville has come up short on the scoreboard.
That makes the Cardinals’ mission very clear. In a down year, their secondary has still come up with nine interceptions. A solid day from three-time All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson (right) is a necessity, including a big play or two for the Cardinals to have a shot at the upset.
The Cardinals have been hit-or-miss this season and will come out fighting in a game where a loss all but eliminates them from the NFC playoff race. But the Jags, winners of three straight road games, are improving every week and looking like a playoff team.
To make the postseason, you win these “trap” games, not struggle in them. With only two of their final six games against teams with winning records, Blake Bortles and company control their own destiny.
Yes, you may need to read that sentence three times over. But it’s true. And this team is going to keep chugging along on Sunday.
Prediction: Jaguars 28, Cardinals 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.