So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.
One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.
Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.
Instead, they're back in first.
ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:
Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.
Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.
Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?
Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.
Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?
DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).
Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?
Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.
I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.
What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?
DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.
Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?
Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.