The Jacksonville Jaguars are talking big and thinking bigger. This week, there was discussion about division titles, playoffs, and — get this — even making the Super Bowl.
But before they get too far ahead of themselves and before the rest of the NFL takes them more seriously as a title contender, the Jags have to avoid stumbling today against the league’s only winless team.
The Browns are overdue.
Jacksonville, riding its first three-game winning streak since 2013, hits the road to take on the Browns (0-9), who have shown signs of improvement in recent weeks and could be helped by a forecast of frigid weather conditions.
Boasting the league’s stingiest defense and a top-ranked run offense that seems to do just enough, the Jaguars (6-3) are having a season few anticipated. By overcoming injuries and some self-inflicted mistakes, and with a seemingly favorable schedule remaining, they’ve positioned themselves for their first postseason appearance since 2007.
It’s all lining up for the Jags, which is why coach Doug Marrone didn’t allow his team to overlook the struggling Browns, who are 1-24 under coach Hue Jackson.
“I learned a long time ago in this league everyone is a professional,” said Marrone, who is in his first season in Jacksonville. “You can take those records and throw them out the window. We are playing a good football team. We understand that we are going to be challenged. That is what I try to keep the focus on. We know that we are going to get the best of the Cleveland Browns. They have been in a lot of tight games.”
Four of Cleveland’s losses have been by three points, and last week the Browns were tied with Detroit in the fourth quarter before their defense collapsed.
The Browns are capable of springing an upset, and although they don’t need any extra motivation to avoid a 0-16 season, Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson gave them some.
Gipson, who spent four seasons in Cleveland, predicted the Jaguars would “hang” 40 points on the Browns and shut them out. Gipson also ripped Cleveland’s front office for not re-signing him, said he sympathized with his friends still playing there, and predicted his former team would “probably go 0-16.”
While he regretted the “0-16” comment, Gipson stood by the others and several Browns felt he went too far.
“Anybody would be disrespected from that,” Browns defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. “So we just gotta go out there and play our game, be dominant.”
Mother Nature could give the Browns an added edge. With temperatures expected to be in the low 30s and a 60 percent chance of rain or snow, the warm-weather Jaguars will have to deal with some unfamiliar external elements.
“You take a little hit and it hurts,” said Jags running back Leonard Fournette, a Louisiana native who has been slowed by an ankle injury. “I hate the cold, period. I sleep in heat. That’s just how I grew up. Mentally, I’m trying to get my mind ready.”
IN THE TRENCHES
Jacksonville’s offensive style is from a bygone era: run first, pass when necessary. The Browns are expecting a heavy dose of Fournette.
“It’s like a Big 10 football game,” said linebacker Joe Schobert, who played at Wisconsin. “This is the first time we’re gonna see 21 personnel (two backs in the backfield) this season. They use their fullback. It’s gonna be a lot of smash-mouth football, downhill runs.”
Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has made a significant impact in just two games. Jacksonville has allowed 2.47 yards per carry since acquiring the 340-pound run stopper from the Bills last month. Cincinnati ran 17 times for 29 yards in Week 9, and the Los Angeles Chargers finished with 87 yards on 30 carries last week.
“He’s someone we’ve got to keep working to increase his snaps because he’s a heck of a football player,” Marrone said.
The Jaguars lead the league with 35 sacks, which has raised Jackson’s anxiety as he tries to protect rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. He sustained bruised ribs on a hard hit last week in Detroit when the Browns failed to recognize an outside blitz.
“They have players everywhere,” guard Joel Bitonio said. “They just let their four or five guys rush the quarterback and they seem to make some plays.”
Jaguars rookie receiver Dede Westbrook will make his NFL debut today. The 2016 Biletnikoff Award winner from Oklahoma was placed on injured reserve following core muscle surgery in early September, but has practiced the past two weeks and is ready to go.
With Allen Robinson out for the year, Allen Hurns down for now with an ankle injury and Marqise Lee nursing a sore knee, the Jaguars need Westbrook. He led the NFL in receiving in the preseason, catching 13 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns in three exhibitions.