Two weeks into the 2018 season, the Houston Texans were licking their wounds from an inexcusable 20-17 loss to a depleted Tennessee Titans squad, and the Jacksonville Jaguars were strutting and cutting after thumping the New England Patriots by double digits. Put simply, the Texans were 0-2, and the Jaguars were 2-0, so to say that Sunday's Week 7 matchup was looking like a battle for first place in the AFC South was, at minimum, a reach.
Here we are, though, both teams at 3-3, and even though the Texans have won three in a row, their approval rating in the city following their 0-3 start has probably only ticked up a smidge over the last three weeks, given the generosity dished out by their opponents in each of those wins — Fran Reich's decision to go for it on fourth down in overtime in the win over the Colts, Jason Garrett's decision to punt on fourth down in overtime of the win over the Cowboys, and Nathan Peterman giving out interceptions like Halloween candy at the end of regulation last week.
The Jaguars have come back down to earth over the last month, in every conceivable way, which may or may not be enough to allow the Texans to overcome their glaring deficiencies along the offensive line. For Bill O'Brien's first three seasons here, the Jaguars were the Viagra for his won-loss record, the Texans going 6-0 in collectively in those seasons. Last year, not so much — the Texans gave up 14 sacks, and lost by a combined total of 74-14.
Let's take a look at a few storylines for this Sunday....
4. Head coaching BFF's
Perhaps you've heard the story, but in case you haven't, Doug Marrone is probably Bill O'Brien's best friend in the coaching business, certainly among those on the short list of really good friends. Their wives are friends, and the Marrones introduced Bill to his wife, Colleen. They also have similar temperaments, which is to say that neither are fearful of salty language or hurting your feelings. Above all else, Marrone has accomplished more in one full season as the Jags' head coach (an AFC title game appearance) than O'Brien has in four seasons here in Houston. Of the two head coaches, from a pure approval rating standpoint within their fan bases, O'Brien needs this win much more than Marrone right about now.
3. The generous Blake Bortles
The high point in the regular season for Bortles' career was likely Week 2 of this season, where he led the Jags to that 31-20 win over the Patriots, throwing for 376 yards and four touchdowns. Social media, debate talk shows, and other corners of the internet trumpeted from the rooftops that Bortles had finally arrived.... aaaaaand then he turned back into the Bortles we've come to know and love, with a 75.5 passer rating and a 4-6 TD to interception ratio during this 1-3 stretch. The Texans have been better at forcing turnovers the last couple games, with four interceptions, including Johnathan Joseph's pick six to win the game against Buffalo. Heating up Bortles and forcing mistakes should be easier this Sunday, with the Jags' backfield banged up.
2. Ramsey vs Hopkins
As wide receiver versus cornerback matchups go, it's hard to imagine a bigger heavyweight matchup this season than Jalen Ramsey against DeAndre Hopkins, two first team All-Pros that meet twice every season. In their four games facing off, Hopkins has yet to notch a 10- yard game, although that can be explained in part by the four starting quarterbacks in those games (Brock Osweiler twice, Tom Savage, and T.J. Yates). Ramsey spent most of the offseason assigning failing grades to most of the players around the NFL in various interviews, but Hopkins is someone he respects. Hopkins has more help than he's ever had in the receiving corps, with Will Fuller and Keke Coutee, and in the end, it may actually be one of the supporting cast that has the big game. Keep an eye on Coutee, as the Jaguars miss Aaron Colvin covering slot receivers, as exhibited by Cole Beasley's 100 yard game in Dallas last weekend.
There are only so many ways to express that Deshaun Watson may die playing quarterback this season for the Texans, and I've used nearly all of them, so I'll use a tweet with a stat that should horrify any of you Texan fans....
Total Quarterback Hits allowed through Week 6:— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) October 17, 2018
CAR, DET: 18
MIA, TEN, WAS: 28
BAL, NE: 29
JAX, SEA: 36
ARI, KC: 37
DAL, GB: 38
IND, NYG: 40
DEN, SF: 42
ATL, CLE: 49
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I guess the only good news is that the Jaguars only have 14 sacks through six games, which we all know is the same number they had in two games versus the Texans last season. Of course, this could also mean they're due. Given this Texans' offensive line, it's probably more that.
I think it's back to ugly Sundays on the scoreboard....
SPREAD: Jaguars -5.5
PREDICTION: Jaguars 20, Texans 10
RECORD: 3-3 SU, 2-4 ATS
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.