Mario Willliams (Getty Images)
When the Jaguars and Texans square off Monday night, they will be playing in front of a national audience for the right to be all alone in third place in the AFC South.
Battling for third place was hardly what either team envisioned at the beginning of the season, when both were expected to take steps forward. Jacksonville was projected by many to be a Super Bowl contender, while Houston was expected to build on last season’s franchise record eight victories.
Now both teams are seemingly playing for pride and little more. Still, both squads seem excited to be featured on national television despite the nightmarish seasons.
“I just think they’re excited to have an opportunity to do that,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of his team playing on Monday night. “This is something they haven’t had around here and you guys have done a lot of those Monday night games. Players get up for things like that but the biggest thing is figuring out a way to play better football than we’ve been playing.”
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio also believes the expanded audience is something for his team to look forward to.
“I think it is a big deal,” Del Rio said. “I think it’s a lot of fun. First of all, they don’t just put anybody on Monday night, so if they’re putting you on Monday night then they think you’re going to have a good season; they think you’re going to be a good team. So, obviously the schedule-makers looked at this confrontation and thought that it would be exciting to watch. I think it will be. I think they’re two talented teams that maybe haven’t had the kind of years that either one of us envisioned when we started. But we’ll still have good players and good coaches and both teams are still working really hard at it.”
Although most experts saw Jacksonville as the superior team entering this season, they both sit with identical 4-7 records. Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson spoke about the team’s disappointment—
“It’s very frustrating. We went 8-8 last year and you feel like you’ve put all the pieces together. You’re hearing everyone saying ‘hey, we have a shot to make the playoffs.’ Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. We’ve been turning the ball over, and that’s the thing that’s been killing us; just turning the ball over. It’s costing us games. It’s hurt us. All we can do is play the games that we have left and try to win as many games as we can.”
Jacksonville just barely won the first meeting between these two teams, 30-27 in an overtime thriller back in early October. In that Jaguars victory, still the only home victory of the season for Jacksonville, the Jaguars did a nice job of stopping the Texans two biggest stars on offense and defense, wide receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end Mario Williams.
Johnson had just three catches for 38 yards in the first meeting in October, and he averaged better than eight receptions and over 110 yards per game since. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak talked about the Jaguars defense on Johnson—
“I thought they did a good job. That was early in the year for us but I thought he played well. It’s just what they were doing coverage-wise, it dictated that ball went elsewhere. It went to our tight end, it went to our Z, so we got to do what we got to do. If people take him away then other guys are going to have to make plays.”
Johnson is usually matched up against former Pro Bowl cornerback Rashean Mathis when these two teams square off. Mathis is one of the few players on the Jacksonville defense that is playing at a high level this year. Mathis has 37 tackles and three interceptions this season, two of which he ran back for touchdowns.
“I think Rashean is a great cornerback and a great athlete,” Johnson said. “I think he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the league. I think he has great ball-skills and every time I go against him it’s a challenge. When you come against him you definitely have to come ready to play. He’s the top of guy who can go out there and just shut a guy down. Every time I go against him I just have to make sure I’m on top of my game and ready to play.”
As important as it is to stop or at least slow down Andre Johnson, it’s equally vital to the Jaguars success to stop defensive end Mario Williams. Williams is the biggest playmaker on the Houston defensive line as he has 35 tackles and eight sacks. The former top overall pick has been neutralized against the Jaguars throughout his career. In the first meeting this year, Jaguars left tackle Khalif Barnes helped hold Williams to just one tackle and no sacks.
Williams has been a consistent pass rusher this year, but has been streaky with sacks. Six of his eight sacks have come in just three games, and he’s been shutout in the Texans last three games.
“He hasn’t had sacks the last three games but he’s been very disruptive and I think last week he played as well as he’s played all year,” Kubiak explained. “Sometimes those sacks are very much overrated. It doesn’t have a lot to do with how you’re playing the total ballgame. It has to do with a play here or a play there but he’s been very consistent as a player.”
Reliant Stadium has been somewhat of a house of horrors for the Jaguars as they’ve dropped four of the six all-time meetings in Houston. If Jacksonville wants to avoid that trend, they will certainly need to stop both Andre Johnson and Mario Williams.