Two rebuilding Florida NFL franchises looking to kick their seasons into high gear take center stage in Week 3's "Thursday Night Football." The Miami Dolphins, still seeking their first win, face the 1-1 Jacksonville Jaguars as both teams seek relevance in an increasingly competitive AFC.
Miami looks to rebound after close losses against two divisional rivals and likely playoff teams (Buffalo, New England). In the season opener, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick let the team down before Miami's defense fell apart in the fourth quarter of Week 2. Both sides of the ball need to have a complete game in order to beat the Jaguars Thursday night.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, has been surprisingly competitive, winning its opener against Indianapolis before falling short in a fourth-quarter comeback of their own. A last-second field goal by the Tennessee Titans was all that stopped them from ending a seven-game losing streak in Nashville and sitting undefeated atop the AFC South.
"These guys are going to continue to get better," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said after the loss. "I don't want to say growing pains because I really feel like those guys can do it."
Their latest chance to prove themselves comes Thursday night. Which part of Florida will tout NFL supremacy: North or South?
Miami at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Jaguars -3
Three Things To Watch
1. Which quarterback will make the fewest mistakes?
Fitzpatrick has started the 2020 season flashing the inconsistency that's dogged him throughout his NFL career. A Week 1 disaster (no touchdowns, three interceptions) had fans calling for rookie Tua Tagovailoa right out of the gate. Then came last week's gem against the Bills: 328 passing yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and gritty play keeping the Dolphins hanging around in their home opener. Third-year tight end Mike Gesicki continued his development as the go-to guy on offense, catching eight passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
It's just hard to say which version of Fitz will show up Thursday night. He had back-to-back multiple touchdown games three times last season; this year, he's also got an improving offensive line (on pace for 24 fewer sacks). The Jaguars have also started the year 30th against the pass, although they picked off Philip Rivers, another quarterback prone to turnovers, twice in their Week 1 victory.
Gardner Minshew II has been far better two weeks into his first full-time season as the Jags' starter. His 115.7 quarterback rating ranks fourth in the AFC, and he's thrown for six touchdowns in two games. But two interceptions against the Titans proved costly, and Minshew is still finding his footing behind an offensive line that's allowed six sacks. Top wide receiver DJ Chark Jr., despite 84 yards in Week 2, is also nursing a chest injury and had limited participation in practice this week.
With two rebuilding teams, the formula is simple: Whichever one wins the turnover battle typically comes out on top. Taking care of the ball starts with the quarterback on both sides; my bet is Fitz struggles more but both are vulnerable to mistakes.
2. Can the Dolphins defense kick into high gear?
The Dolphins defense has stumbled out of the gate. They're last in the NFL, allowing 7.22 yards per play through two games and 30th overall with 440.5 yards allowed. One of their best players, cornerback Byron Jones, pulled his groin against the Bills Sunday and is likely out for Thursday barring some miracle healing.
Can the Jags offense take advantage? The Dolphins are allowing a league-worst 10.24 yards through the air. Chark, if he can muscle through his injury, averages 15.6 yards per catch. The deep ball could be on display as Minshew isn't afraid to take chances.
The run game for the Jags is also one to watch. Rookie James Robinson is making fans quickly forget about some former lead back named Leonard Fournette. A 102-yard game last week against the Titans is a foundation to build on against a Dolphins defense allowing 164.0 yards per game their first two weeks. Clearly, the defensive issues are what's holding Miami back in a year where they hoped to take a small step forward.
"There are opportunities for us to make plays and we haven't made them," Dolphins head coach Brian Flores told the Miami Herald this week. "There's never just one thing. I think we've had some opportunities that we need to take advantage of. We try to stress every play because you never know which one's going to shift the momentum."
As mentioned above, forcing Minshew and the Jags into turnovers is key. But the Dolphins have yet to intercept a pass in 2020 and will be further stretched to do so with Jones on the sidelines.
3. Can the crowd actually help the Jaguars?
Home-field advantage has been largely neutralized in the NFL this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most NFL teams aren't allowing fans at their games through September; just a handful have long-term plans to let them in, period.
That's where the Jaguars are an important exception. Under Florida's rules, they're allowing fans in at up to 25 percent capacity, the largest percentage of any state with an NFL franchise. It'll put somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 in the stands Thursday night, a reasonable size that's enough to let an opponent know they're there.
The question is what type of fans will actually show up for the game. In Week 1, a local Indianapolis paper estimated up to 40 percent of fans in the stadium for the Jags' home opener were rooting for the Colts instead. It's easier for Dolphins fans to travel in this in-state rivalry, and taking over the stadium could neutralize any home-field edge.
These teams are a long way from being Super Bowl contenders. That said, it feels like the Jags are about a year ahead of the Dolphins in their long-term rebuilding project.
Expect a monster game from Minshew and a high-scoring offensive explosion on both sides. As long as he holds onto the ball, the Jags should win that one with ease.
Prediction: Jacksonville 38, Miami 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.