The Jacksonville Jaguars have endured a disappointing first half to the season, but back-to-back games against teams that are currently winless could help put them back on the right track.
The Jaguars look to win their fifth straight against the dismal Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Jacksonville (3-4) had high hopes for 2008 after winning 11 games and reaching the playoffs last season, but instead it has struggled to finish out games and now finds itself below .500 and one game out of a postseason spot and four games behind unbeaten Tennessee for the AFC South lead.
Each of the Jaguars’ seven games has been decided by seven points or less - a trend which continued last Sunday with a 23-17 loss at home to Cleveland.
Quarterback David Garrard went 25-for-42 for 283 yards and two touchdowns, but Matt Jones bobbled and dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone with 16 seconds remaining, ending the Jaguars’ best late scoring opportunity.
The drop notwithstanding, Jones had one of his best games of the season, catching eight passes for 117 yards and one touchdown. However, he will likely not be available Sunday, as he is waiting to hear the NFL’s decision on his appeal of a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Coach Jack Del Rio ripped into his team after losing to the Browns, but on Monday said he refused to blame anyone in particular.
“How we respond is what’s most important,” Del Rio said. “My reaction to a game isn’t what’s important. How we respond as a football team to get ready for the next opponent is what’s most important. I just want to see a little more grit, a little more resolve, a little more determination and the execution and the accountability for each other for what we’re doing, for how important it is.”
Despite Del Rio’s team’s struggles, playing against the winless Bengals (0-8) and Lions (0-7) in the next two weeks could help the Jaguars move above .500 for the first time this season. Jacksonville has won four straight and nine of the last 10 over Cincinnati, which is off to its fourth 0-8 start since 1991 and is two losses shy of the franchise’s worst start in 1993.
“When you’ve been embarrassed like we were, the only way to get away from that is to redeem yourself,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “And the only way to redeem yourself is to go do better, and do better right away, and not let it sit and spoil you.”
The last two defeats have been especially embarrassing, with Lewis’ team getting outscored by a combined 49-3 in the second half. After a 38-10 home loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 19, the Bengals fell 35-6 last Sunday at Houston.
“When you get down by a lot of points and you’ve lost a lot of games, sometimes things waver here and there, your effort here and there,” receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. “Maybe it’s just human nature. I don’t know what it is. You’ve just got to fight against that.”
Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 20 of 32 passes last week, but managed only 155 yards while throwing two interceptions and getting sacked twice for his third consecutive start. Fitzpatrick, who had just three NFL starts in the previous three seasons, is filling in for Carson Palmer, who is out indefinitely with an elbow injury.
While Fitzpatrick’s inexperience has limited the offense, a Cincinnati defense allowing more than 27 points per game isn’t making his job any easier.
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew will look to bounce back against that defense after gaining only 29 yards on 12 carries last week. Jones-Drew has 264 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Jaguars’ three wins, but only 66 yards and two TDs in their four losses.