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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (8-7) at Houston (5-10)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Jacksonville Jaguars were already in a tough spot in regards to making the playoffs heading into the final week of the regular season, but the anticipated absences of the team's two offensive catalysts figures to make the task an even more arduous one.
Jacksonville won't have starting quarterback David Garrard under center for Sunday's AFC South clash with the Houston Texans from Reliant Stadium, while star running back Maurice-Jones Drew seems destined to sit out as well due to a painful knee injury that will likely require surgery.
Garrard went under the knife on Thursday to repair a torn tendon in his right middle finger and was placed on injured reserve, putting the Jaguars in a further bind as they try to end a three-year absence from the postseason. Former Buffalo starter Trent Edwards will take over the offense in his place for Sunday's tilt.
Jacksonville's playoff hopes had been close to being dashed anyway after ill- timed losses in each of its last two games, and the team needs to defeat the free-falling Texans and have first-place Indianapolis lose at home to Tennessee in its regular-season finale to capture an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed for the conference playoffs.
The Colts regained control of the division race with a 34-24 victory over the Jaguars in Indianapolis during Week 15. Jacksonville then was dealt a 20-17 overtime loss to visiting Washington last Sunday, a game Jones-Drew was forced to miss with swelling in his troublesome knee.
Understudy Rashad Jennings managed just 32 yards on 15 carries against the Redskins, who limited the Jaguars' normally-potent running game to a mere 78 yards on the day.
Jacksonville, which held a one-game advantage on the Colts prior to its setback in Indianapolis on Dec. 19, is on the verge of a second straight late- season meltdown that resulted in a failure to reach the playoffs. The Jaguars were 7-5 and in contention entering the final quarter of the 2009 campaign, but lost its last four games to miss out.
The Texans come into Sunday's matchup with plenty of problems of their own. Houston has dropped its last four contests and lost eight times in a nine-game span following a promising 4-2 start to the season, with the collapse raising questions about head coach Gary Kubiak's future with the organization.
Recent reports have indicated that Kubiak's job is safe as long as he fires his defensive staff, and rumors of ex-Dallas head coach Wade Phillips coming on board as the Texans' defensive coordinator for 2011 have began to swirl.
The defense has been the biggest culprit to Houston's demise. The Texans have surrendered a league-worst 277.1 passing yards per game and 32 touchdowns through the air, while permitting at least 24 points in all but one of their 15 tests.
Houston gave up 24 points in the second half of last week's game at lowly Denver, enabling the Broncos to erase a 17-0 deficit at intermission and rally for a 24-23 win.
The Texans have not lost five in a row since ending the 2005 season with two straight defeats and getting off to an 0-3 beginning the following year.
Like Jacksonville, which came through with a thrilling 31-24 home triumph over Houston in Week 11 on a 50-yard Hail Mary touchdown heave from Garrard to wide receiver Mike Thomas on the final play, the Texans may be taking the field minus one of their offensive standouts. Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson missed last Sunday's loss to the Broncos with a high ankle sprain and will be a game-time decision for the finale.
Jacksonville took a 9-8 lead in its all-time series with Houston by virtue of the previously-mentioned last-second home win on Dec. 5 and has prevailed in each of the last three meetings between the teams. The Jaguars swept the 2009 season set with the Texans, starting with a 31-24 decision at Reliant Stadium during Week 3, but had lost in three straight trips to Houston prior to that victory. The Texans last bested Jacksonville on Dec. 1, 2008, a 30-17 win at home.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio has an 8-7 overall record against Houston, but is just 2-5 all-time at Reliant Stadium. Kubiak is 4-5 against both Del Rio and Jacksonville during his tenure in Houston.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
With Garrard (2734 passing yards, 23 TD, 15 INT) unavailable, the Jaguars will tie their fading postseason fortunes to the maligned Edwards (381 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INT), once considered a potential franchise quarterback in Buffalo. The fourth-year pro began the year as the Bills' starter before being replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick after two games and was released by the club shortly after, with Jacksonville claiming him off waivers in late September. His only previous action with the Jags came in relief of Garrard during a Week 6 loss at Tennessee, with Edwards completing 14-of-24 passes for 140 yards and tossing two interceptions. A ground game that ranks fourth in the NFL (146.5 ypg) and delivered three straight outings of over 200 yards from Weeks 12-14 also takes a sizeable hit with the expected absence of Jones-Drew (1324 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 7 total TD), whose immense value was illustrated by how poorly the team ran the ball against a depleted Washington defense last Sunday. Jennings (351 rushing yards, 3 TD, 22 receptions) has shown promise in limited duty, however, and the second-year back will be counted on heavily with the offense currently in a state of flux. When Edwards drops back to throw, he'll be looking in the direction of Thomas (65 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Marcedes Lewis (54 receptions, 9 TD), named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad along with Jones-Drew on Tuesday. Wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker (43 receptions, 7 TD) will also be in the mix if he's able to fight off an ankle sprain that's hobbled him as of late.
Edwards couldn't have a better opponent to face off a long layoff than a Texans team that's been routinely torched by enemy quarterbacks all throughout this season and allowed Denver rookie Tim Tebow to throw for 308 yards a week ago. The young cornerback tandem of Glover Quin (80 tackles, 3 INT, 14 PD) and rookie Kareem Jackson (66 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) have experienced their share of growing pains, and the secondary hasn't been helped by a pass rush that's been virtually non-existent since difference-making end Mario Williams was placed on injured reserve a few weeks back. Houston does play the run well, however, with outside linebacker Brian Cushing (71 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and hard-hitting strong safety Bernard Pollard (111 tackles, 2.5 sacks) leading a group that yielded a solid 3.9 yards per rush attempt for the year. The Jaguars were able to roll up 165 yards on the ground and 491 total in the first meeting between these divisional foes, however.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
While its defensive issues have been well-documented, Houston does sport a well-balanced offense that's compiled the fifth-most total yards in the NFL (379.3 ypg) and contains a three Pro Bowl honorees in Johnson (86 receptions, 1216 yards, 8 TD), prolific running back Arian Foster (1436 rushing yards, 64 receptions, 16 total TD) and strong-blocking fullback Vonta Leach. Quarterback Matt Schaub (4117 passing yards, 23 TD, 12 INT) is no slouch either, having posted his second straight 4,000-yard season in 2010 and coming into Sunday's bout with four consecutive performances of over 300 yards. The steady signal- caller also turned in a big day against the Jaguars in November, throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. Foster's been a revelation in his first season as a starter, topping the league in both rushing and yards from scrimmage (2,030) while also serving as an integral part of a passing game that was able to offset Johnson's loss last week with big days out of wide receiver Jacoby Jones (46 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Owen Daniels (33 receptions, 1 TD). Jones had a career-best 115 yards on five catches against the Broncos, with the oft-injured Daniels making eight grabs totaling 73 yards and garnering his first touchdown catch of the season.
Schaub will be attempting to bomb away on a shaky Jacksonville secondary that's allowed over 250 yards per game through the air (26th overall) and 27 touchdown passes, a reason why the Jaguars are 31st overall in pass efficiency defense (Houston is last). The Jags also don't pressure the quarterback well, with their total of 26 sacks the fourth-lowest in the league, and the team has had trouble filling the void created by veteran end Aaron Kampman's year-ending knee injury at midseason. Jacksonville does have a quality three-man linebacker core consisting of offseason addition Kirk Morrison (76 tackles) in the middle and Daryl Smith (90 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Justin Durant (55 tackles), though the latter will likely sit out on Sunday due to a groin strain, and that trio helped hold Foster to a modest 56 rushing yards on 14 carries back in Week 10. The Jaguars have been inconsistent in run defense over the course of the year, however, as evidenced by the 155 yards on the ground the pass-happy Colts were able to attain two weeks back.
Those who may be competing for a fantasy championship this week and have either Jones-Drew and Johnson on their rosters catch a tough break with their doubtful status, though their replacements -- Jacksonville's Jennings and Houston's Jones -- aren't terrible fill-in options. With the Jaguars forced to make a quarterback change, most of the appealing choices here come on the Texans' side. Foster has been money all year long and Schaub's a good play against a vulnerable Jacksonville secondary, while Daniels seems to be finally over a hamstring problem and is worth a look at the tight end spot. Edwards' insertion makes the prospects of Thomas, Lewis and Sims-Walker all uncertain, so it may be best to look elsewhere. Both defenses should remain where they belong -- on the waiver wire.
As this season's initial meeting showed, these defensively-challenged combatants are evenly matched when at full strength. Problem is, the Jaguars won't be fielding their best team on Sunday, having to trot out a backup quarterback that hasn't started since September in addition to their Pro Bowl running back battling a bum knee. Jacksonville may have to rely on a defense that's been far from a stonewalling unit in order to save its season, and that could spell trouble against a Houston squad with plenty of dangerous weapons on hand and that will be determined to close out a bitter year on a positive note.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Jaguars 20
12/31 11:37:28 ET