It’s official: The Jacksonville Jaguars are playoff contenders, even while playing in the contentious AFC South. Though impressive in style, the true merit of Jacksonville’s win over Dallas three weeks ago was questioned at the time due to the Cowboys’ perceived lack of effort. Jacksonville’s accomplishment last Sunday, however, could not be, as the Jags defeated a quality opponent in Houston, and looked mostly impressive in doing so. Now the Jags find themselves riding a two-game winning streak, in the middle of a divisional playoff race, and heading into a very winnable game at home against Cleveland this Sunday. Yet with road games against the Giants and Titans on the horizon, a Jacksonville win this weekend is a must, as momentum and standing in the NFL can be lost every bit as quickly as it can be gained.
Like Jacksonville, Cleveland has also experienced a sort of resurgence of late, defeating New Orleans and New England in consecutive weeks before losing to the Jets in overtime last Sunday. And though Cleveland would need a whole bunch of help, both teams will play as if their playoff hopes are on the line this weekend. With that said, let’s take a closer look at how the two teams matchup, whose got edges, and where.
KEYS TO WEEK 11:
Both teams want a win this Sunday in the worst kind of way. The Browns would like to bounce back from a tough overtime loss to New York last weeekend and can’t afford any more losses if making the playoffs is going to be a reasonable goal. As for the Jags, few teams are playing better football and with more confidence at the moment, but a loss at home to Cleveland would put all that to a quick end.
As we discuss every week, football is very much about matchups, and Jacksonville should be the recipient of some pretty favorable ones this Sunday. While Cleveland sports a relatively average run defense, it has been mostly bad against opposing passing attacks this year. On the other side of the ball, rookie quarterback Colt McCoy has been relatively impressive in his four starts, but doesn’t have the savvy, experience or receivers to truly take advantage of a vulnerable Jacksonville secondary. Without further ado, then, let’s take a closer look at these matchups and more below.
Ball in Hand:
Let’s start by establishing where Cleveland is most vulnerable. The Browns are without question more competitive against the run than the pass. That doesn’t mean they dominate opposing backs – Cleveland has given up 120 rushing yards or more in three of its last five games – but they are no doubt respectable when it comes to keeping opposing rushing attacks in check. The team’s pass defense, on the other hand, is a bottom-10 unit in the league and has been on the receiving end of some pretty prolific passing performances this year.
As for the Jacksonville, David Garrard and company couldn’t be happier about drawing Cleveland and its vulnerable defensive backs this Sunday. That’s mostly because Jacksonville’s starting quarterback is in the midst of the best four-game stretch of his career and has all of a sudden made Jacksonville into a legitimate threat to beat opponents through the air. Excluding his limited action against Tennessee, over his last four starts Garrard has completed 74-of-94 passes for 943 yards and 11 touchdowns, with just one interception. Those awesome totals translate into an awesome quarterback rating of 143.
The Jags have always been a run-first football team, and the Browns can expect to get a heavy dose of Maruice Jones-Drew on Sunday. Garrard, Mike Sims-Walker, Mike Thomas, and Marcedes Lewis, however, will be the true keys to victory this weekend, as Jacksonville will get its best opportunity to exploit the Cleveland defense through the air, riding its quarterback and his blazing arm.
On the Defense:
By now, we all know Jacksonville’s secondary is the weakest part of its defense. Fortunately, though, McCoy and his receivers are among the league’s least capable of taking advantage of the porous Jags, which should place Jacksonville’s defensive focus clearly on stopping the Cleveland ground game.
While the Browns are less than mediocre when it comes to passing the football, the team sure can run it, as Peyton Hillis is one of the league leaders in rushing yards and ranks third among all backs with eight rushing touchdowns this season. The bruising, 240-pound, third-year breakout player managed 82 yards rushing last week against the mighty Jets, and ran for 144 yards on the road against Baltimore earlier in the season and for 184 two weeks ago against New England.
Though McCoy has put together a respectable rookie campaign, he is neither capable of carrying a team nor ready to be the reason one wins. The key to beating the surging Browns, then, centers around containing Hillis and the Cleveland rushing attack. Jacksonville ranks 21st in the league this year in rush defense, which is hardly a great number, but has the ability to play better than solid run defense on occasion. The loss of defensive end Aaron Kampan (ACL), however, will continue to hurt Jacksonville’s pass rush, which could in turn make committing to and stopping the run a significantly more difficult task.
When it’s all Said and Done:
Considering how good Jacksonvile has looked over the last three weeks, this weekend’s matchup with the Browns should be an extremely favorable one. Cleveland is playing great football, though, and features a very imposing rushing attack.
Garrard’s edge over the Cleveland secondary is decisive and should make moving the ball relatively easy for Jacksonville. The Jags must stop the Browns before scoring their own points, though, and I’m afraid the team’s lack of a pass rush could spell disaster.
If Jacksonville can’t pressure McCoy the young quarterback will find his open receivers, which will force the Jags to divert attention from stopping the run, making Hillis a much more formidable opponent. Simply put, if the Jaguars can’t pressure the quarterback they won’t get the Cleveland offense off the field or the ball in Garrard’s hands nearly enough. Unfortunately, I predict this is exactly what will happen on Sunday, and the Jags will find themselves on the losing end of another close, but high-scoring affair.
Prediction: 27-24, Cleveland
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Written by Scott Janovitz