The Jacksonville Jaguars travel to New York this week to take on the Jets (1-0), led by Mark Sanchez and the NFL's third-ranked defense from a year ago. For Jacksonville, this game gives them an early season opportunity to beat a quality opponent on the road, and establish themselves as legitimate contenders in the AFC.
After Sunday, the Jaguars may realize they're still a year away.
While Jaguars fans may point to the team's 2009 victory against the Jets in New York as proof they are ready to contend this Sunday, this isn't 2009 and Mark Sanchez, then a rookie, has blossomed into one of the league's premier quarterbacks.
Sanchez struggled in that game, going 16 of 30, while throwing 2 interceptions to Quentin Groves and Rashean Mathis. Meanwhile, Maurice Jones-Drew gashed the vaunted Jets defense for 123 yards and a touchdown in a 24-22 victory.
In 2011, however, the Jaguars simply don't match up to a team so dangerously loaded at wide receiver and stout defensively.
Derek Cox, the Jaguars top cornerback, is likely out with an injury at the position at which the Jaguars can least afford to be vulnerable. Look for Mark Sanchez to take advantage of Jacksonville's secondary, who is likely to start Drew Coleman alongside Rashean Mathis at cornerback.
Mammoth receiver Plaxico Burress will pose matchup problems for the Jaguars in the red zone, where the 6'5 Burress can use his size to position himself against the smaller, less physical Jacksonville corners. Santonio Holmes will represent speed for the Jets' passing game, and promises to challenge Jacksonville's revamped defense by stretching the field early and often.
Furthermore, Dustin Keller is a tight end who has the size to post against smaller defensive backs and the speed to give linebackers fits in coverage. Look for Keller to be a key component for the Jets on third down.
Where I expect Jacksonville to excel in this game is against the run. Jacksonville brought in Paul Posluszny and Clint Session during the offseason for games exactly like this, and I expect them to create problems for a Jets offense that ran the ball for only 45 yards last week against the Cowboys.
However, if the Jets offensive line gets push against Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton, the Jaguars linebackers will be presented with blocked pursuit lanes, inhibiting their flow to the football. If the Jets have much success running the football, the Jaguars are in deep trouble.
Offensively for the Jaguars, facing one of the league's most talented and aggressive defenses will prove impossible if they employ the same predictable, conservative offensive strategy they used against Tennessee last week. Look for the Jaguars to use rookie Cecil Shorts early in the game, in three wide receiver sets, to help spread out the Jets defense and create running lanes for Jones-Drew.
Most importantly, the Jaguars must take the training wheels off of Luke McCown.
McCown hit mostly check-downs and intermediate routes last week, but was successful when the Jaguars allowed the veteran journeyman to take a chance on third down late in the game. The Jaguars must give McCown more downfield opportunities, and the unheralded receiving group must make plays, to give Maurice Jones-Drew space to work with along the line of scrimmage.
If the Jaguars fail to keep the Jets guessing, it will get ugly.
I look for the Jaguars to keep it close, and McCown to play well early, before the Jets defense seals the game with a late turnover or fourth down stop.
Jets win it, 23-16.