Game Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans

Oct 23, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Davis Mills (10) throws the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans

The Matchup:

Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8) at Houston Texans (2-12-1)

Game time: Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, noon CT

TV/Radio: KHOU-11 (CBS)/SiriusXM 225, KILT-AM 610, KILT-FM 100.3, KLOL 101.1FM (Spanish)

What’s at stake: For the Jaguars, sole possession of first place in the AFC South. Jacksonville enters the game at 7-8, one half-game ahead of the injury-riddled Tennessee Titans, who are 7-9. The Jaguars hold the tiebreaker over the Titans as well. Winning the division would put the Jaguars in the postseason for the first time since the 2017 season when they advanced to the AFC Championship game.

For the Texans, possession of the first overall pick. At 2-12-1, Houston’s record is a half-game worse than the 3-12 Chicago Bears. Chicago defeated the Texans earlier this season, and therefore the better pick in the case of the teams having the same record would fall to Houston. While the Bears have become convinced Justin Fields is their quarterback of the future, Chicago could trade the pick to a QB-needy team for a bunch of draft assets should they get the top overall selection. The Texans are expected to take a quarterback with their first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

The Texans have won nine straight games against the Jaguars, a streak that Jacksonville would like to end as they seek a postseason berth.

When the Texans have the ball: Houston will continue to utilize the two-quarterback system. Davis Mills is the primary quarterback, with Jeff Driskel coming in for specific packages and situations. Mills’ play has markedly improved over the past three games since being reinserted into the lineup. Driskel’s packages are generally running plays, but he has thrown a handful of passes each game, which keeps opposing defenses off balance.

The Texans’ offensive line should be back to full strength, with both Kenyon Green and Tytus Howard returning to the lineup. The O-line has performed very well over the past four games, allowing only two sacks in that span. They are better in pass protection than they are in run blocking.

Royce Freeman is likely the primary running back, with Rex Burkhead likely getting the change-of-pace and receiving duties. Dare Ogunbowale is questionable for the contest with a knee injury. Ogunbowale first appeared on the injury report Thursday and was listed as a limited participant in practice on Thursday and Friday. The running game has struggled to gain traction without breakout rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who is out for the rest of the season.

Brandin Cooks and Chris Moore are the primary wide receivers, with Amari Rodgers as the third receiver. Rodgers has had some moments of strong play since getting into the lineup three weeks ago. Jordan Akins, Brevin Jordan and O.J. Howard are likely to be the tight ends as rookie Teagen Quitoriano (thigh) is out this week. The team has been happy with Quitoriano as a blocker and receiver, and Howard could garner more of those blocking reps. Houston will need to be successful in the passing game to win Sunday, and they will get a bottom-five pass defense to work against.

When the Jaguars have the ball: Trevor Lawrence (toe) is questionable for the game but is expected to play. After a difficult rookie season, his play has improved significantly in his first season under Doug Pederson. After completing only 59.6% of his passes a season ago, Lawrence has improved to 65.9% in 2022. He has doubled his touchdowns from 12 to 24 while cutting interceptions from a league-high 17 in 2021 to only seven this season. Two of those came against the Texans, a game Lawrence shouldered responsibility for by admitting to a poor performance he would like to atone for.

On the ground, Travis Etinenne Jr. has seized the role of three-down back for the Jaguars as their primary rusher and most targeted running back in the passing game. Etienne has exactly 1,000 yards rushing on the season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and four touchdowns. He also has recorded 30 catches. The Texans are dead last in rush defense, allowing 168.6 yards per game. Houston has allowed over 180 yards rushing each of the past two weeks.

Jacksonville has a solid trio of passing weapons in wide receivers Christian Kirk (76/988/7) and Zay Jones (75/778/5). Tight end Evan Engram has been a weapon in the passing game as well. In his first season in Jacksonville, he has posted a career-high in receptions (68) and yards (723) to go along with four touchdowns. That touchdown total is his highest since his rookie season in 2017 with the New York Giants, where he spent his first five seasons.

Key Texans to watch:

QB Davis Mills: Mills has played much better since rejoining the lineup against Dallas in Week 14. If the Texans are going to win this game, they will need a top performance from Mills. He should have the protection to make plays, as the Jaguars are 28th in sacks, and the Houston offensive line will be intact this week. The unit has allowed only two sacks in the past four weeks despite injuries. Jacksonville is 29th in passing yards allowed. Only five teams have allowed more passing touchdowns than the Jaguars’ 24.

WR Brandin Cooks: Cooks hasn’t topped 80 yards in a game since Week 1 this season. Injuries and philosophical differences with the team have conspired to limit him to only 11 games so far this season, one of the worst of his career. Previously known as being ‘quarterback proof’ or able to produce at a high level regardless of who threw him the ball, this has been a frustrating season for the veteran receiver all around. His 48 receptions are the second-fewest of his career, as is his 554 yards receiving thus far. His two touchdown ties a career low as well. Cooks needs a breakout game to show the team that he can still be a big producer on the field, and the Jaguars present precisely the kind of defense that can be done against.

CB Desmond King II: The Jaguars O-line has allowed only 25 sacks this season, the fourth fewest in the league. They have afforded quarterback Trevor Lawrence the time to find receivers down the field. King has played very well in place of injured cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., and he will need to be on top of his game again as the Texans got absolutely no pressure on Lawrence in Week 5 (0 sacks, 1 QB hit) and likely will struggle to do so again. King had six tackles and three passed defensed Week 5 in Jacksonville, as well as one of the Texans’ two interceptions that day. Without much pass rush forcing Lawrence to force the play, King and his cohorts in the secondary will need a big game to slow down the Jaguars’ air attack.

LB Christian Harris: Harris recorded his first career interception last week against Tennessee, and also had six tackles and two passes defensed. Houston will need him to have a strong game like that again Sunday but against much better competition. Instead of the very raw Malik Willis, he will get a more polished and strong-armed Trevor Lawrence. No offense to Austin Hooper, who is a solid player, but Evan Engram is third in the NFL in targets, and fourth in yards among all tight ends this season. Harris has his plate full Sunday, and his ability to limit Engram could make or break the Texans’ ability to get off the field on third downs.

The bottom line: The Jaguars are the hotter, more complete team right now and should win this game. However, the Texans could and should be competitive. While it would harm them in the chase for the top overall pick, this is a game that Houston could win.

The Texans’ offensive line should be able to protect Davis Mills, and if Mills continues to play well, Houston should be able to move the ball in the air very successfully. That alone should allow them to keep the game within one score. The rushing attack without Pierce has been feeble, and maybe this week they will run more plays designed at getting Driskel the ball outside the pocket and showing some different looks.

Defensively is where Houston figures to struggle the most against a solid, balanced Jaguars offense. Expecting Lawrence to struggle again is foolhardy. Over his last seven games, the Jaguars are 5-2, and Lawrence has a 14:1 TD: INT ratio. Etienne had 10 carries for 71 yards in a game he was still splitting carries with now-former teammate James Robinson. Etienne is now the bell cow and has shown the explosion and ability that made him a first-round pick last season.

Houston should be competitive, fight hard, and have a chance to make plays in the fourth quarter that will ultimately decide the game despite being outmanned and outgunned. While the Texans aren’t favored and shouldn’t be, it will not be a shocker if they pull another upset this week.

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