Jaguars' surging defense heads to Arizona
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Reeling at 4-6 after back-to-back losses for the first time this season, the Arizona Cardinals know their playoff chances are virtually dead if they even lose one of their remaining six games, starting Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium against the surging Jacksonville Jaguars.
Going 5-1 to finish 9-7 probably isn't going to be good enough to even make it as a wild card this year.
Or is it?
"You know what, the way the league is now 9-7 might win the division," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "I don't know this year. We've just got to win one. We've got this nice (three-game) home stretch. Take advantage of it and see how they fall.
"But yeah, the way this is going this year, I don't know who is going to win what."
Winners of four straight, the Jaguars (7-3) are a lot more confident in what lies ahead for them. They are in sole possession of first place in the AFC South entering Week 12 for the first time since 1999. Riding their longest winning streak in 10 years, their final six games come against teams with a combined 24-36 record.
After this game, their next three games are all at home. Jaguars players are sensing just how special this season has become and what could be in store for them down the road. Coach Doug Marrone, however, said his team isn't looking ahead.
"We try on a daily basis. I do not talk to them about that," he said. "Basically, I was brought up in a system of trying to win each quarter. So, the first quarter we started out 2-2 and had an opportunity to win it and lost in overtime. The second quarter, we were 3-1, so we won that one. Then, we're in the third quarter, and we've won the first two.
"And right now we're just concentrating on seeing if we can put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to win this third one in the third quarter. I've tried to keep the focus basically on the quarters and each game that we play."
Cardinals quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been looking forward to this game ever since Arians named him the team's third starter a week ago following injuries to Carson Palmer (arm) and Drew Stanton (knee).
Coming off a career-high three-touchdown performance last week in a 31-21 loss to the Texans, Gabbert will be making his second start of the season and his first ever against his former team.
He was a first-round pick by the Jaguars in 2011, the 10th player selected overall, but was traded to the 49ers after three unproductive seasons in Jacksonville.
He's now with his third team and his eighth head coach since entering the league out of Missouri.
"I mean, yeah, that was the team that drafted me," Gabbert said when asked if Sunday's game will hold something special for him. "Things didn't work out there, but looking back on it, hindsight is always 20/20 and that was a long time ago. ... It's been four years.
"Everything happens for a reason. I'm a firm believer in that. It didn't work out there. There were things in my control, some things out of my control. But for whatever reason, it just didn't work. But I wouldn't change it at all. I learned a lot, met a lot of great people there. The past is the past and I've moved on. I'm happy to be a Cardinal."
Sunday's game, meanwhile, is a homecoming for Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell, who entered the week tied for the NFL lead in sacks with a career-high 11 1/2 sacks. He spent each of his previous nine NFL seasons with the Cardinals, where he was a two-time Pro Bowl selection until leaving in the offseason to sign a four-year, $60 million free-agent deal with the Jaguars.
"I don't mind saying that this game has been circled from day one, when the schedule came out," Campbell said. "I'm very excited to play back in University of Phoenix Stadium -- a lot of good memories there in front of that crazy, intense crowd, and I'm really looking forward to it.
"I really don't know how I'm going to feel. Right now, it feels just like a regular work week, but I'm sure when I step into that stadium, it's going to really take over me and just have some fun out there."
It has been anything but fun the majority of this season for the Cardinals, who are a combined 11-14-1 since going 13-3 in 2015 and advancing to the NFC Championship, where they were destroyed by the Carolina Panthers.
Arizona has had to place 11 players on injured reserve and has lost several key players along the way, starting with star running back David Johnson back in Week 1 due to a dislocated wrist. The Cardinals have since added future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson in a trade with Saints, but other than a pair of 100 plus-yard games, Peterson has been held in complete check behind a reshuffled and piecemealed offensive line.
Going up against Jacksonville's explosive defensive front seven won't make things any easier for the Cardinals. Not only can they derail an opponent's running game, but they are the best in the league at getting after the quarterback with 40 sacks, and they're also allowing a league-low 162 passing yards per game.
"You've got to stay balance (between the run game and pass game)," Arians said. "You hope you stay balances, successfully, but you still have to stay balanced. You can't let this front tee off on you. They lead the league in takeaways (with 23) because they all have such good ball skills and they have a lot of eyes on the quarterback. They don't always play man-on-man."
Jacksonville's two starting cover corners, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, are as good of a tandem as there is in the NFL and with possibly up to three new pass catchers starting for the Cardinals, that is where this game could flip.
Unless, of course, veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks second in the league in receptions (69) at age 34, decides to take the game over.
"He's incredible," Campbell said. "I wouldn't expect anything else."
"The guys in the back end have done a really good job of being able to make the quarterback hold the ball a little bit longer," Marrone said. "I think if you look at all the sacks from our team, or the pressures, ... you would say we're pretty much 50-50, where guys are winning up front and creating a sack and, obviously, half of those sacks are coverage sacks."
The Cardinals, of course, have a pretty talented cornerback, too, in All-Pro Patrick Peterson.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, who has thrown 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions this season, will have to be watchful if he decides to throw any passes in Peterson's general direction.
"Patrick is probably the best corner, right now, in the league," Marrone said. "He's outstanding, has really great length, really savvy, really can beat you with routes, really does a good job at the line of scrimmage and has the speed. He's been a good football player for a while now, and there's a reason why he's a Pro Bowl player."