Jacksonville Jaguars in ultimate underdog role; Week 6 subplots


Maybe you would be offended at the disrespect that being one of the biggest underdogs in history signals. At the questions about whether Peyton Manning should even play in Sunday's game or just take the week off. At the dispatch from the Broncos' Twitter account that noted, accurately if perhaps a bit archly, that Denver scored as many points against the Dallas Cowboys last week as the Jacksonville Jaguars have scored all season.

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The Jags are not.

Paul Posluszny was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2007 and has played in Jacksonville since 2011, a career that has included solid personal play and a whole lot of losing. That makes him uniquely suited to take the long view of the Jaguars' current fortunes and what they face this week as one of the most overmatched teams/predicted punching bags in history.

"From our perspective, we view it as an elite opponent, playing against Peyton Manning, one of the best who has ever played," Posluszny said by phone this week. "To have the opportunity to play against him, we are excited about that. It's a huge challenge. The way Coach Bradley wants us to look at this -- we have a chance to see where we're at."

If that sounds like how Appalachian State would view an upcoming game at Alabama, well, that might be so. But the Jaguars are embracing their inner pragmatists, in part at the behest of Gus Bradley. The rookie head coach is relentlessly energetic, and he told his team early on that his approach would not change, no matter how well or how poorly the season was going. His message to the players this week was simple: Eliminate the noise, because if you listen to it, it is wasted energy.

And so the Jaguars are not miserable, even if everyone else thinks they should be. They have received more attention this week than they will until they appear high in the pecking order of next spring's NFL draft.

Why the intrigue?

Because the Jags will put the NFL's worst scoring offense (10.2 points per game) and second-worst scoring defense (32.6 points per game) against the best scoring offense (46 points per game). The Broncos have scored 230 points in their first five games -- an NFL record -- while the Jaguars have notched 218 points in their last 15 contests.

This lends the game a curious quality. Most blowouts are boring and easily ignored. But the anticipation of just how badly the Jaguars might be beaten -- the wonder at just how large a gap there is between best and worst in a league built around the premise of parity -- has made this one of the most talked-about games of the season.

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The Jaguars are in the midst of a massive rebuilding -- one so all-consuming that there are people within the organization who think it is more accurate to just call it a "build," one that might take at least two (if not three) years. The roster has been gutted and now is among the youngest in the NFL. The Jags lean heavily on rookies, both safeties included. The draft picks are being stockpiled, including the mid-round selections acquired from Baltimore in exchange for offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, a former first-round pick left over from the previous regime. The coaching staff, the front office -- even the plush locker room -- have been overhauled.

Inside the building, the Jags see subtle signs of improvement. Receiver Justin Blackmon has returned from a suspension. The 34-20 loss to the St. Louis Rams last week, in which the Jaguars were within a touchdown on the road in the fourth quarter, is viewed as a step in the right direction. The chatter of their impending beatdown this week is unavoidable, but nobody seems particularly insulted by it. Instead, they think it would be naïve for anybody to pretend they shouldn't be underdogs. The bromides are gone, replaced by honesty. They look at the Broncos and Manning as something to aspire to.

"Unfortunately, I've been on some bad teams," said Posluszny, who has never been on a winning one in the NFL. "With us being 0-5 vs. 5-0, this is unique. This doesn't happen very often, and it shouldn't. This is the situation we've put ourselves in. We have to say, this is an opportunity to play against the best.

"We played poorly and we're 0-5. It's reality. You can't say 'Why are people saying that?' We're at where we are. It's our problem that we're in this situation. You can't blame it on anybody else, you can't feel sorry for yourself."

Manning was careful to say all the correct things about the Jaguars this week in Denver -- about a stingy red-zone defense, a team that plays with a lot of pride, a good football team. Manning has been at this a long time -- asked week after week about his team's opponents -- and the compliments and catch-phrases and caution come easily to him.

Still, Manning's comments generated more giggles at Jacksonville's expense. And Jaguars fans might be more interested in another story about their team this week: that the organization reportedly asked for three credentials so team officials could watch Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater play Thursday night.

The fans and the front office might be looking to the future. But Posluszny said the players are looking forward to just one thing: playing Sunday, as improbable as that might seem, as impossible as a victory appears to be.

"That would be unbelievable, right?" Posluszny said. "A national story."

It certainly would be one that would trump all the other things worth watching this week. Speaking of which, here are 10 more things to ponder in Week 6:

1) Which defense breaks first when the New Orleans Saints visit the New England Patriots? The Patriots' defense is allowing just 14 points per game, second-fewest in the league. The Saints' defense is fourth, yielding 14.6 points per game. What might be the difference? In his career against Bill Belichick's Patriots, Drew Brees is 3-0 with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions.

2) How much of a difference would the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski make for the Patriots? There was optimism early this week that Gronkowski indeed would make his season debut Sunday, but as of publishing on Friday, the Patriots star had yet to be cleared by Dr. James Andrews, leaving his status up in the air. Still, with receiver Danny Amendola being eased back in and Gronk nearing a comeback, New England is as close to full strength as it's been this season. The Patriots need the help, currently ranking second-to-last in red-zone touchdown efficiency -- second only to the Jaguars -- at 35.3 percent. The Patriots are averaging just 19 points per game this season, down from 34.8 last season. In last week's 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, New England had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line ... and wound up kicking a field goal.

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3) Can the Washington Redskins, coming off a bye and their first victory of the season, get off to a faster start against the Dallas Cowboys? The Redskins have been outscored 81-31 in the first half this season. That's the second-worst first-half differential in the NFL -- behind only the Jaguars -- and a reflection of Washington's woeful defense (26th in scoring D) as much as its faltering offense. That's bad news because the Cowboys are the league's second-most-prolific scoring offense.

4) Can Kansas City QB Alex Smith reverse an under-the-radar trend to keep the Chiefs' perfect start safe against the Oakland Raiders? Smith has thrown three interceptions in the last two games, after throwing none in the first three. And while the Raiders are 1-9 in their last 10 road games, they have won six straight in Kansas City.

5) Were those three interceptions against the Raiders a sign of regression from San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers? Rivers ranks in the top four in the league in passing yards, passer rating, touchdowns and completions. But the Chargers have the fourth-worst turnover differential in the league (minus-8). Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts, San Diego's opponent Monday night, already have seven interceptions, tying them for third in the NFL.

6) Is this the week Matt Schaub doesn't throw a touchdown pass to the other team? The Texans quarterback hasn't escaped a game without throwing a pick-six since the opener -- the dubious streak covers four Sundays, with Houston losing on the last three. The St. Louis Rams, who rank 29th in total offense, can use all the help they can get.

7) Will Mike Zimmer's Cincinnati Bengals defense ever allow a 300-yard passer again? It's been 19 straight games without one, including contests against both Mannings, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. Good luck to Buffalo Bills starter Thad Lewis, who threw for just 204 yards in his lone NFL start -- for the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 last season.

8) What does Clay Matthews' absence (thumb injury) mean for the Green Bay Packers' defense against the Baltimore Ravens? Matthews leads the team with three sacks, and the Packers' success has hinged on their defense, which allowed almost 20 fewer points in the two victories than in the two defeats. Avoiding Matthews is a big break for a Ravens offensive line in transition. Recently acquired left tackle Eugene Monroe took first-team snaps this week. Joe Flacco has been sacked 14 times in 201 pass attempts, a sack percentage of 6.5, which puts the Ravens almost exactly at the league average. But Flacco was under constant pressure from the Miami Dolphins last week.

9) Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get their first win and relieve some of the heat on coach Greg Schiano? The Josh Freeman saga brought a lot of negative attention to this team. The product on the field hasn't helped matters. The Bucs' scoring and overall offense is better than only the Jaguars. But rookie quarterback Mike Glennon -- who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in his debut, a loss to the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago -- gets to face the Philadelphia Eagles this week. They are 31st in total defense, and have allowed at least 21 points and 380 yards in every game this season.

10) Will the Pittsburgh Steelers finally get a takeaway, and a victory? The 0-4 Steelers still haven't forced a single turnover, becoming just the second team in NFL history to go the first four games without one. The 3-2 New York Jets are second in the league in giveaways (12), with eight interceptions by rookie quarterback Geno Smith. But Gang Green had zero turnovers against the Atlanta Falcons last Monday.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.



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