About the only thing worse than having to travel to Florida to play an NFL game for the second time in eight days is going on the road to face a desperate team. When the Vikings line up against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, they will be facing a team similar in many respects to themselves – a team that has waited years to unseat the division champion with the belief that 2008 was "our year" – only to have it unravel.
A year ago, the Jaguars were 11-5, a record that would have been good enough to win four of the NFL's eight divisions. Unfortunately for the Jags players and coaches, they were in the same division as Indianapolis, which walked off with another AFC South title. The franchise pointed to 2008 as the year that the Colts would finally be unseated atop the division.
They were right, but it wasn't the Jaguars that did it. Division rival Tennessee has burst out of the gate to a 10-0 start and has all but locked up the division title. But through 10 games, the Jaguars, who have almost all of the same component parts in place that built the team into a success in 2007, are mired at 4-6. Five teams currently have a better record than Jacksonville in the wild card chase and their 2008 season has reached critical mass. One more loss – much less a fifth home loss in six games – and Jacksonville's playoff hopes will be all but gone.
The have been transformed from a team of promise to a team of desperation in the span of two short months. Like the Vikings, the Jaguars came out of the gate at 0-2 have been fighting an uphill struggle ever since. Every time they have battled back to get to .500, they have stumbled the following week. Their 24-14 loss to the Titans last Sunday went a long way to sealing their fate. The Vikings have a chance to pound the nails in the coffin and put an end to any hopes of a December rally. But it won't come easy. When good teams are desperate, they are at their most dangerous.
"They're a better team than that record says," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "That happens sometimes in the NFL. You look at a team on film and they look like the same team they were last year when they were one of the best teams in the league. A lot of times it just comes down to a play here or a play there that turns a win into a loss. We know we're better than a 5-5 team. I'm sure they're feeling the same way."
The biggest problem for the Jaguars this season has been consistently scoring points. Of their 10 games, the Jags have scored 21 or more points in five games. They've had a record of 4-1 in those games. When held to 20 points or less, they're 0-5.
But, like the Vikings, when faced with a loss that could wipe out their season, they responded. After starting the year 0-2, the Jaguars had to travel to Indianapolis, where they have enjoyed very little success over the years. They were faced with the possibility of falling to 0-3 with losses to Tennessee and Indianapolis in their division. The team responded with a 23-21 win. They have had an up and down season since, but, after last week's loss to the Titans, the Jaguars are 3-6 against AFC opponents. With three of their final six games against the NFC North, they can do little in the way of checker-jumping opponents with AFC wins in the division or the conference.
The conclusion in Jacksonville is simple – they need to run the table. They were able to do that last year – winning five straight games before falling to New England in the playoffs. The Vikings are aware that the Jaguars view this game as a make-or-break game to their season. Win this game and the dream can live for another week. Lose and the chances of making the playoffs will be monumentally stacked against them.
As a result, the Jaguars are once again a dangerous, desperate team.
"They are very dangerous," said wide receiver Bobby Wade, who has personal experience with the talented players on the Jaguars from his time with the Tennessee Titans. ‘They're very much a team like the Bears or Green Bay. It doesn't much matter what their prior record is on Sunday. They can hit the switch and turn it on in a week. We've got to be prepared, stay on top of them and really take it to them."
The Vikings clearly aren't taking the Jaguars lightly. Although they have hit hard times this year, especially struggling at home, Jacksonville isn't going to go down without a fight. For a team with a sub-.500 record, there are still those who believe the Jaguars could get on a roll and run the table for a postseason run again.
"They're just good," Birk said. "Defensively, they're always near the top of the league for a reason. They have good players. They're physical. They're aggressive. When you watch the film, you see them swarming to the ball and are running all over the field. On the back end, they have speed and can make plays. That's what makes them dangerous. They have talent."
The Jaguars clearly have flaws – they haven't had a pass play of more than 35 yards all season on offense and have allowed 18 touchdown passes on defenses. On a team that specializes in winning tight games, prior to giving up a late score to the Titans last week in a 24-14 loss, Jacksonville has lost all five of its games by seven points or less.
The Vikings are expecting to see the best the Jags can give them Sunday. A team with everything to lose can become a team with nothing to lose. Players will take chances in hopes of making the big play. A desperate team in a desperate situation can often rise to the occasion. But, then again, the flip side can be true.
"You could say they're desperate right now," guard Anthony Herrera said. "Tennessee has run away with that division and they know that their only hope is the wild card. But we're in a three-way tie for first place and we're going on the road to play a team that is pretty good and playing at home. We're just as desperate for a win to stay in first place, so maybe they should be more worried about us than we should be about them."
Jaguars are desperate and dangerous
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