JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Go ahead, Jaguars offensive lineman Uche Nwaneri said, make jokes now.
Bring on the snide remarks about 0-16 and being one of the worst teams in NFL history.
He's waiting ...
He knows nobody's going to have much -- if anything -- to say, not after Thursday night's 27-20 victory over Houston in front of 60,414 at EverBank Field. That was the Jaguars' third win in a row, which Nwaneri said proves they're no longer the joke they were in the first half of the season.
"Everybody who was talking noise can just eat some crow real quick," he said.
The Jaguars (4-9) are the hottest team in the AFC, having won four of their five games since the bye week. The fact that none of the teams they've beaten has a winning record and one, the Texans, has lost 11 in a row, is irrelevant. The Jaguars are winning games, which is something that looked darn near impossible in the first month of the season.
They scored just two points in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. They lost their first eight games all by double digits. They didn't score a touchdown at EverBank Field until Nov. 17.
They're starting three rookies in the secondary. They don't have their best receiver, who was suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy for a third time.
The Jaguars were a mess. They were hopeless. They were a joke.
And boy did people pile on. The season's first month wasn't even over before NFL analysts were comparing the Jaguars to the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2008 Detroit Lions, the only teams in the NFL's modern era to go winless. The players answered those questions openly and honestly, but they were angry inside.
Thursday was another vindication.
"Nobody wants to hear that junk: 0-16, first pick," receiver Cecil Shorts said. "We tried to tune it out but when the media asks that or tweets that we're going to draft so-and-so every day, it's hard to get out of your mind.
"But we did a good job of staying the course and things are really paying off. But we've got a long way to go. Our goal is to get better each and every day."
They've done that since the bye week. Especially defensively, improving their run defense from 161.8 yards per game allowed in the first eight games to 70.8 yards per game allowed over the past five.
But more importantly, they're making plays in crucial situations. Their first two touchdowns against the Texans came on third down -- Chad Henne's 1-yard pass to Marcedes Lewis and Henne's 6-yard pass to Shorts -- and the third came on a well-designed trick play. Henne threw a lateral to receiver Ace Sanders, who lofted a 21-yard touchdown pass to running back Jordan Todman.
Linebacker Geno Hayes intercepted Matt Schaub with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the game, and that led to Scobee's 39-yard field goal with 25 seconds left.
They weren't making those plays in the first half of the season. Heck, they weren't even in position to make those plays.
But coach Gus Bradley never wavered in his message to the team. He told the players to trust in their preparation, trust in what the coaching staff was asking them to do, and trust that if they did those things the results would eventually be positive.
It was hard, for sure, because for so long the results did not come. But Bradley was so strong that the players stayed with him. They never doubted.
Then came a 29-27 victory at Tennessee on Nov. 10. Two weeks later, the Jaguars beat the host Texans 13-6. On Sunday, they beat the host Cleveland Browns 32-28. Then Thursday night.
"We talked a couple weeks ago about it validates what we're doing," Bradley said. "It really is a credit to our players for what they've gone through and to stick to it and have some results go their way, it's pretty cool."
Now the Jaguars are no longer a mess. In fact, their recent run has -- believe it or not -- kept them alive in the playoff race. It's obviously a ridiculously small chance, but the fact that they're still alive after the horrendous 0-8 start means they deserve respect, not ridicule.
"That just lets you know that all the analysts and people who [are] so-called professionals and geniuses don't know what they're talking about," defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said. "It's the NFL. Any given Sunday any team can go out and beat any team."
That's no joke.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans.
What it means: The Jaguars have their first three-game winning streak since the 2010 season and their first victory at home in more than a year (Nov. 25, 2012). The Jaguars had lost six consecutive games at EverBank Field. They’re also 4-1 since their bye and somehow still alive in the playoff race.
Stock watch: The Jaguars had no answer for quarterback Matt Schaub, who came in for Case Keenum in Thursday's third quarter and led the Texans to 10 points. The Jaguars couldn’t mount much of a pass rush -- they sacked him only once until the game's final play, and he had plenty of time to pick out receivers -- and Schaub was able to exploit what has been the Jaguars’ weakness all season: the middle of the field. He feasted, too, completing 17 of 29 passes for 198 yards and one touchdown. He made one mistake, a pass that linebacker Geno Hayes intercepted to set up the game-clinching field goal. The secondary has been an issue all season but particularly in the four games before Thursday night, giving up an average of 291 yards per game passing in those contests.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch continues to show his creativity. One week after having Maurice Jones-Drew throw a pass to Marcedes Lewis for a touchdown, he called a play in which receiver Ace Sanders threw a touchdown pass to running back Jordan Todman. The creativity makes up for a lack of experienced receivers and an offensive line that struggles with consistency. Of course, it helps that the plays are working.
RB injuries: The Jaguars lost Jones-Drew late in the third quarter to a hamstring injury, and Todman suffered a minor injury late in the fourth quarter, which really hurt their chance to run the clock. Jones-Drew had surpassed 100 yards for the first time this season and it was the closest he has looked to the player who led the league in rushing in 2011. The Jaguars had to go to third-stringer Denard Robinson, who carried twice for minus-1 yard, to try to kill clock on their next-to-last drive. Todman did return on the final drive, which began after Hayes’ interception.
Costly penalty: The Jaguars played a pretty clean game, but they did commit one costly penalty that directly led to three points in the fourth quarter. Texans kicker Randy Bullock missed a 51-yard field-goal attempt, but the Jaguars were penalized for having 12 men on the field. The Texans decided to go for it on fourth-and-5, converted the first down, and Bullock went on to kick a 31-yard field goal that cut the Jaguars’ lead to 24-20 with 11 minutes, 31 seconds to play.
What’s next: The Jaguars host Buffalo on Dec. 15 in their next-to-last home game of the season.
QB Chad Henne: He got battered around pretty good in the last meeting but did not turn the ball over. In fact, it may have been one of his best games because of how poised he was despite the pressure. The Texans gave up a ton of passing yards to Tom Brady last week. Henne isn’t Brady, though. Verdict: Sit him.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew: He had a season-high 144 all-purpose yards against the Texans in the last meeting and the Jaguars’ approach of giving Jordan Todman some carries is keeping Jones-Drew fresher. Verdict: Play him as your No. 3 back or flex position.
WR Cecil Shorts: Shorts has a rough day against Cleveland until he finally beat Joe Haden for the game-winning touchdown. The Jaguars may go to some quicker passes to combat the Texan’s pass rush so Shorts should get a lot of action. Verdict. Start him.
TE Marcedes Lewis: It’s pretty clear by now that he’s not going to be a big factor in the passing game, although he did catch a touchdown pass last week. But if three catches is all you can expect, there are better options at tight end. Verdict: Sit him.
K Josh Scobee: He kicked three field goals last week and remains the team’s leading scorer at EverBank Field. There will be no weather issues and he should get a chance to score because of the Jaguars’ improved work in the red zone. Verdict: He’s as good an option as any kicker.
Defense/special teams: The Jaguars did a good job rattling Case Keenum in the last meeting, which helped them shut down Andre Johnson (two catches, 36 yards). The defense is giving up only 67.8 yards per game rushing over the last four games and has recorded nine of its 20 sacks and forced eight of its 16 turnovers in the same span. Verdict: They’re a solid option.
QB Case Keenum: He threw for 272 yards and one interception and ran for a touchdown in the loss to the Patriots last Sunday. More importantly, the offense scored 14 points in the second half. While that’s not great it shows some improvement. The Jaguars secondary has been torched in two of the past three games. Verdict: He might be worth a gamble if you’re in a league that plays two quarterbacks.
RB Ben Tate: He didn’t have a lot of success against the Jaguars (1 yard on seven carries) but he’s coming off a big day against the Patriots: 102 yards and three TDs. The Jaguars have been good against the run the last four weeks, but Tate is rounding back into form. Verdict: He’s a solid option as your No. 2 or 3 back.
TE Garrett Graham: He is one of the few tight ends who did nothing against the Jaguars. Verdict: Sit him.
WR Andre Johnson: The safest play this week is Johnson, who I can virtually guarantee will catch more than two passes against the Jaguars. Verdict: Start him.
K Randy Bullock: The Texans cannot be as inept offensively as they were 11 days ago, which should mean Bullock is a solid option. Verdict: Like Scobee, he’s as good an option as any kicker.
Defense/special teams: New England just torched the Texans for 435 yards, including 365 passing. The Jaguars don’t have the same kind of weapons, obviously, and the Texan’s pass rush really gave Henne trouble in the last meeting. Will they force mistakes, this time? Verdict: The Texans are a good gamble.
Ben Tate, RB, ribs/ankle, (probable): Tate has essentially been a fixture on the injury report ever since he suffered rib fractures back in Week 7. Somewhat unbelievably, he has not missed a game since. Along the way, he has acquired some other ailments, including an ankle injury that is listed next to his name this week.
Although some fantasy owners were alarmed when he was listed as a non-participant Monday, it's worth noting that Monday was only a walk-through. Tate had a huge game in Week 13, putting up over 100 yards rushing and three scores against the Patriots. Given only four days until his next outing, it seems the rest was certainly warranted. Expect him on the field Thursday night against the Jaguars. While he may not match Sunday's performance, it's tough to imagine him not outperforming his stats of two weeks ago against the Jaguars, when he managed only 1 total yard rushing.
Cecil Shorts, groin, and Mike Brown, shoulder, WRs, (probable): Shorts is another regular on the injury report. He has been listed with a groin injury for multiple weeks, but ever since he played through an extremely painful SC (sternoclavicular) joint injury earlier in the season, there has been little doubt he would take the field each week. He is expected to do so again Thursday night.
Brown suffered an AC (acromioclavicular) joint injury in Week 11 against the Cardinals and sat out the following game. The shoulder has kept him on the injury report, although he did return to action Sunday. Brown notched only one catch, while rookie Ace Sanders -- who has seemingly emerged as the second-favorite receiving target since Justin Blackmon's suspension -- had eight. Brown is expected to play again Thursday night, although fantasy owners may want to look elsewhere for help in advancing in the playoffs.
Where’s Andre? The Jaguars did a good job in the last meeting of limiting Andre Johnson to two catches for 36 yards. Part of the reason was how poorly quarterback Case Keenum played, but the Jaguars did have a hand in that as well, sacking him twice, hitting him five other times, and breaking up nine passes. But the Jaguars also made sure they knew where Johnson was at all times and gave the corners safety help over the top. Plus, a player without coverage responsibilities slid over to help on shorter routes. Expect the Texans to get Johnson involved early and often.
Playing loose: Coach Gus Bradley told the players he didn’t want them getting amped up because Thursday’s game will be on national TV. "What are we doing next Sunday?" Bradley said. "Don’t get amped up? I don’t want to send them that double message." Still, you can sense excitement among the players, who are eager to show they’re a significantly better team than the one that started the season 0-8. Does that mean they’ll play loose and trust their preparation, like Bradley told them, or will be they a big tight? Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get from a young team until the moment happens.
Watt’s happening: Texans DE J.J. Watt had only one sack in the first meeting, but he hit quarterback Chad Henne five times and had two tackles for loss. The Jaguars have to do a better job of neutralizing him this time. Henne took quite a beating in that game (four sacks, 13 hits) but stood in the pocket and didn’t make poor throws. Look for some quicker throws to keep that from happening in this meeting.
More Todman: Running back Jordan Todman has gotten more work the past four games, in part to give Maurice Jones-Drew a bit of a break but also because he has proven he deserves carries. He has run for 82 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in the last four games, including 62 yards on 16 carries in the past two games. He had a career-high 11 carries for 31 yards against Houston on Nov. 24, which was also the day that Jones-Drew produced a season-high 144 all-purpose yards.
Defensive line surprise: Bradley said defensive end Jeremy Mincey and defensive tackle Abry Jones will both be active against the Texans. That means another defensive lineman -- possibly tackle Brandon Deaderick or end Ryan Davis -- will be inactive. Tackle Roy Miller has been battling a shoulder injury all season but the Jaguars going non-contact this week because of the short turnaround gave him additional time to rest the shoulder.
Before and after
Why are the Jacksonville Jaguars 3-1 since the bye? Because they’ve played significantly better defense since the break. Linebacker Paul Posluszny said the coaching staff simplified things. They’ve concentrated on the alignments, coverages, stunts and blitzes the players do well and are relying on those instead of trying to be too creative.
The result has been a defense that’s much better than it was in the first eight games. With the exception of passing defense, the Jaguars have improved their rankings in the NFL in over the last four weeks.
The Jaguars have improved on offense as well, but the discrepancy between the first nine weeks and the last four isn’t as significant. For example, the Jaguars ranked 32nd in total offense (286.5 yards per game) in the first nine weeks and rank 28th (283.8 yards per game) over the last four.
The two areas in which they did improve significantly are third-down conversions -- going from 32nd (29.5 percent) to 23rd (32.2 percent) -- and red zone efficiency, going from 32nd (25 percent) to 10th (60 percent).
But the defensive improvements are even more striking. Here’s a breakdown of where the Jaguars’ defense ranked in six major statistical categories through the first nine weeks and where it ranks among NFL teams in games played over the last four weeks:
Weeks 1-9 (0-8)
Total defense: 392.2 yards per game (27th)
Rushing defense: 161.8 yards per game (32nd)
Passing defense: 230.5 yards per game (12th)
Third-down defense: 44.8 percent (28th)
Red-zone defense: 62.2 percent (26th)
Scoring defense: 33.0 points per game (32nd)
Weeks 10-13 (3-1)
Total defense: 358.8 yards per game (17th)
Rushing defense: 67.8 yards per game (3rd)
Passing defense: 291.0 yards per game (30th)
Third-down defense: 40.3 percent (23rd)
Red-zone defense: 53.8 percent (16th)
Scoring defense: 22.0 points per game (13th)
There's no mystery to why people will be tuning in to watch Thursday night's classic between the Texans and Jaguars. With no playoff implications and limited fantasy football significance, the biggest intrigue is from a handicapping point of view (and potential No. 1 draft pick implications in May). Sometimes the greatest value can be found in the worst games.
The Jaguars, surprisingly, have won three of their past four, the second win coming when these two teams played two weeks ago. Midway through the season, Jacksonville seemed like a solid bet to have the worst record in the NFL. The Jaguars seemed vulnerable to an 0-16 season, and gamblers pondered questions such as, "What would the line be if the University of Alabama played Jacksonville?"
It helps to play Chad Henne instead of Blaine Gabbert, and the impact of a new coach's new scheme sometimes takes some time to begin to show tangible results. Gus Bradley seems like he was a good choice to lead this struggling franchise.
As for the Texans, it's hard to believe how a Super Bowl contender is in position to have the top overall pick. Everything has gone wrong, from Gary Kubiak suffering a mini-stroke during a game, to Matt Schaub losing his job to stars Arian Foster and Brian Cushing suffering season-ending injuries.
But despite nine straight losses, the Texans are still a field goal favorite Thursday night on the road. Preseason expectations still have some meaning, evidently. The public, however, is fairly split as only 54 percent of the bets are on the Texans.
Let's turn to our panel of Vegas experts for an ATS pick on Thursday night's matchup.
Matchup: Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Spread: Opened Texans minus-2.5; now Texans minus-3
Total: Opened 43.5; now 43.5
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The streaks the Jaguars and Texans are on entering tonight's game are ones that would have been hard to believe after the first two weeks of the season.
The Jaguars started 0-2 and played so poorly it looked like they would go down as one of the worst teams in NFL history. The Texans started 2-0, and while those victories were shaky, it looked like they'd be able to right the ship and be one of the top playoff seeds in the AFC.
Three months later, the Jaguars (3-9) are 3-1 since their bye and have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. The Texans (2-10) have dropped a franchise-record 10 consecutive games, including a 13-6 loss to the Jaguars in Houston on Nov. 24.
Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli break down the matchup:
DiRocco: Tania, the Texans felt like they were at rock bottom after losing to the Jaguars on Nov. 24. What's their state of mind heading into Thursday's game?
Ganguli: They were up for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. It was a big one for the Texans after the way the Patriots blew them out twice last season, and that was apparent in the game. The Texans' offense played what might have been its best game with Case Keenum at quarterback, moving the ball from start to finish. There were some positives in that game, but ultimately the loss officially knocked the Texans out of playoff contention. Now they’re playing for pride. They can still avoid the league’s cellar when the season ends. And while there’s a section of fans that cares about the No. 1 overall pick above all else, a win would mean a lot to the team.
The last time the Texans played the Jaguars, the Texans fell to 2-9 and the Jaguars rose to 2-9, causing the Texans to join the Jaguars with the worst record in the NFL. Now the Texans are there alone and the Jaguars have won three out of their past four games. Is that indicative of a turnaround, or of poor play by their opponents?
DiRocco: It's a little of both, but I'd say more that the Jaguars have improved. In the four games since the bye, they're much better against the run (68 yards per game allowed vs. 162), have recorded nine of their 20 sacks, and are plus-3 in turnover ratio. The offensive line has been more consistent and receiver Ace Sanders has begun to emerge as a reliable option. So they are playing much better than the first eight games, which they lost by double digits. But the Jaguars haven't exactly played against the league's elite: The four teams are a combined 18-30 and only one (Arizona) has a winning record. They haven't exactly had to deal with elite QBs, either: Jake Locker/Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Keenum and Brandon Weeden. Still, that shouldn't take away from the fact that the Jaguars are a better team than they were a month ago and have played well enough to win three consecutive games on the road for the first time since 2007.
Ben Tate looked pretty good against the Patriots, and it's probably not a coincidence that he rushes for 102 yards and the Texans nearly win. Is he back to 100 percent and is he the key for the Texans against the Jaguars? He really struggled in the previous meeting.
Ganguli: The running game just didn’t seem to get going in these teams’ last meeting, but Tate rebounded in a big way against the Patriots last weekend. He was asked if it was the best game the offensive line had played, and he said it was definitely one of them. Tate won’t talk about it, but he’s playing for a contract, as this is his final year with the Texans. The Texans’ offense needs him to be productive, and he was on Sunday.
It feels, from the outside, like a completely different season has sprouted for the Jaguars, whose nine losses all have been by double digits. Who has been the MVP of their three recent wins?
DiRocco: It hasn't really been one player, which is indicative of the growth the team has made since the bye week. Against Tennessee it was linebacker Paul Posluszny, who set the tone for the defense on the game’s first offensive snap when he knocked the ball loose from Chris Johnson and recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 19-yard line. Three plays later the Jaguars took a 7-0 lead and never trailed. Against Houston it was running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for a season-high 84 yards and one touchdown and had a season-high 144 total yards. Against Cleveland it was Cecil Shorts, who fought through two drops and dealing with cornerback Joe Haden. Shorts beat Haden on a double-move to catch the game-winning touchdown pass with 40 seconds to play.
The last time the teams met, the Jaguars held Andre Johnson to just two catches. What kind of game do you expect out of him on Thursday?
Ganguli: Johnson’s production in that meeting had as much to do with the shakiness of the quarterback as it did with Johnson. Keenum had a rough day with both his decision-making and accuracy. He was gun-shy, and it hurt him and his receivers. It was no surprise then that a better day for Keenum coincided with a better day for Johnson against the Patriots. He caught eight passes for 121 yards, becoming the second-fastest player in league history to reach 900 career catches. I think you’ll see something closer to that version of Johnson. I don’t see Keenum regressing to what he was 11 days ago.
To wrap up, let’s talk about Jones-Drew some more, a guy who is probably pretty happy with the events of the past week. His college team won its big rivalry game, his current team won again and he got to throw a touchdown pass. That followed a game against Houston with those 144 all-purpose yards. Do you expect similar production from him? And how thrilled was he to get to throw that touchdown pass?
DiRocco: Jones-Drew is riding a pretty good wave, isn’t he? He’s probably the most proud of the touchdown pass, which makes him the first non-quarterback to throw a TD pass in franchise history. It also makes up for his only other career pass attempt, which got intercepted. Jones-Drew’s production has increased the past several weeks because the offensive line has been more consistent and he’s more involved in the passing game. He says catching passes doesn’t result in as much pounding as running through the line of scrimmage, so he’s fresher in the fourth quarter. I expect him to get 20 touches tonight.
That's why the Jaguars are 3-1 since the bye, writes the Florida Times-Union's Gene Frenette.
"Gus has been consistent with the same message since April 2nd of getting better," receiver Cecil Shorts said. "When you're 0-8 a lot of teams can go downhill and everything can be in turmoil. He kept the locker room together, kept his coaches together, and kept us growing together. That's all on Gus."
Here are some additional pieces of Jaguars content from around the Web in our daily Reading the Coverage feature:
The T-U's Ryan O'Halloran provides four keys for tonight's game, a capsule with pertinent information, and a breakdown on why the offensive line has performed better in the running game.
The T-U's Hays Carlyon writes that holding Houston receiver Andre Johnson in check as the Jaguars did in the earlier meeting will certainly not be easy.
A roundup of items from this blog: the Jaguars can still make the playoffs; the weekly NFL Nation Buzz video; defensive end Jeremy Mincey is likely to be active; the weekly Jaguars mailbag (a day early because the Jaguars play tonight).
Coach Gus Bradley said Wednesday afternoon that Mincey could play in Thursday's home game against Houston. It will be the first time he will be on the field since the Jaguars' Nov. 17 game against Arizona.
"Unless something unforeseen happens, he will be active," Bradley said.
Mincey overslept and missed a team meeting on Nov. 23. Bradley decided not to take him on the team's trip to Houston to face the Texans and also fined him an undisclosed amount. Mincey also was inactive for the Jaguars' game at Cleveland last Sunday, although he did make the trip.
Bradley said Mincey has slowly begun to regain the trust he lost last month.
"The first week he stayed home and I wanted him to think about it," Bradley said. "This week I wanted him to be on the field on our sideline and think about it. I wanted him to see and demonstrate to me and our team while on the sideline that even though he wasn't active that he was involved.
"He did those things. Sure, we're not there yet but it was progress being made."
Mincey said he had some other minor transgressions over the past few months and missing the Nov. 23 meeting was the tipping point for Bradley. Mincey has a 3-month-old daughter and also owns a recording studio in Jacksonville and said he had gotten caught up with both of those things and his commitment to football slipped. He said he was grateful for Bradley's punishment because it helped him reorganize his priorities.
LONDON -- London is getting its first NFL day game, creating a new morning time slot for viewers in the United States.
The NFL said Wednesday that the game between the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions at Wembley Stadium on Oct. 26, 2014, will start at 1:30 p.m. local time, making it a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff in the U.S.
The league said the switch will make it easier for a global audience to tune in and also create an unprecedented fourth game window for American viewers that day.
The Wembley games have traditionally started at the same time as the 1 p.m. kickoffs in the U.S. The other two London games scheduled for next season -- Dolphins-Raiders on Sept. 28 and Cowboys-Jaguars on Nov. 9 -- will both start at 6 p.m. local time.