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Scouting the enemy: Jacksonville Jaguars

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If the Denver Broncos want to keep their playoff hopes alive — they have to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I've always disliked the Jacksonville Jaguars.  One of my earliest memories as a Broncos fan was Denver's heart-breaking loss at home to them in the 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff game.  I remember that game as if it were yesterday.

The Broncos took an early 12-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to touchdowns from Vaughn Hebron and Shannon Sharpe. It seemed as if the Broncos were poised to head to the AFC Championship game, but 23 unanswered points courtesy of Mike Hollis, Natrone Means and Keenan McCardell left the Broncos down 23-12 with only 8 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Denver's offense able to march down the field and get within three points courtesy of Terrell Davis, but the final nail in the coffin was a Mark Brunnel pass to Jimmy Smith that put the Jaguars up 30-20 with just a few minutes remaining.  Despite John Elway connecting with Ed McCaffrey for a late touchdown, Denver wasn't able to register another score and fell 30-27.

That game might have been the gut check the Broncos desperately needed.  After all, the team was able to score back-to-back Super Bowl championships the next two seasons after the devastating loss in front of nearly 76,000 wild fans at Mile High.

Since then, the Broncos have been one of the most consistent franchises in the NFL and have amassed a myriad of divisional titles and three league titles.  On the other hand, Jacksonville has wallowed in mediocrity, and have only made the playoffs twice since the end of the 1999 season.  Yet, the all-time series between the two teams is in Jacksonville's favor – with six wins compared to five losses.

This Sunday, the Broncos have the ability to even that head-to-head record and boost their hopes of remaining in the AFC Playoff race when they travel to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on the road.  It's not an easy match-up by any stretch of the imagination, but a favorable one on paper and a game the Broncos should be able to win if they can play great defense and have an offensive spark courtesy of Paxton Lynch.

Concern for Jacksonville - Offensive Issues Galore

It has been a very long time since the Jaguars had an offense they could be proud of.  Unfortunately for Jacksonville faithful, this isn't a year to be hyped on their offense.

Despite surrounding quarterback Blake Bortles with a myriad of talent players through free agency and the NFL Draft over the past several years, the production for the Jaguars offensively has been downright pitiful in the 2016 season.  They currently rank 25th in the NFL in points per game (19.5) and 23rd in overall yards (334).  Their passing attack is 21st in the league averaging 238 yards per game, while their rushing attack is even worse and is only amassing 96 yards per game on the ground.

As a unit, they lack discipline and execution.  The Jaguars are the eigthth most penalized team in the league and a fair share of them have come on offense, which has led to missed opportunities and stalled drives game after game.  Making matters worse is a terrible third down conversion rate of 36.5 percent, which is 23rd in the NFL.

On the bright side, their offensive line has improved in pass protection.  Over the past two seasons, they have allowed Bortles to be sacked over 50 times each year, but this year that number has been cut back significantly.  Alas, Bortles' poor mechanics and penchant for making mistakes (13 interceptions) is still a glaring concern.  Offensively, they have committed 22 turnovers and their defensive has only had seven takeaways.  Their -15 margin in the turnover battle is the worst in the NFL and a primary reason for their struggles to date.

Though they possess a decent amount of weapons, the Broncos' defense should feel very good about their prospects going up against the woeful Jaguars offense on Sunday.  It isn't likely that the Jaguars rushing offense will be able to carry the load against the Broncos, and I like Denver's chances if they play strong enough defensively to force Bortles to try and win the game through the air.

Bortles, despite intriguing physical tools, has yet to put it all together in his third season as a pro. He has only had one game-winning drive this season and only six total in his NFL career.  His errant accuracy and turnover prone nature have been a thorn in the side of the Jaguars' ability to be competitive since he was drafted.  I firmly believe those struggles will continue on Sunday and expect the Broncos' No Fly Zone to cause Bortles' to have considerable consternation throughout the game's entirety.

Jacksonville's X-Factor: Allen Robinson

Even though the Jaguars' offense has struggled to date, they still have a big-time receiver in Allen Robinson who has been one of the best receivers from his draft class.  Interestingly enough, the Broncos could have drafted Allen Robinson, but selected Cody Latimer because he was "a better blocker" than Robinson.

To date, Robinson has 181 catches, 2,539 yards receiving and 22 touchdowns.  Latimer has a lowly 11 catches for 104 yards and only one touchdown.  Talk about one of the biggest draft back-fires.  I think it's pretty safe to say that the Broncos swung and missed in the 2014 NFL Draft on receivers and grabbed the biggest bust of them all in Latimer.

Robinson has tremendous size and athleticism and the ability to beat you in the red zone.  His speed is deceptive as well, so it'll be important for the Broncos' secondary to account for him at all times.  The Bills did a tremendous job of keeping Robinson at bay last week, so expect him to play with a little extra fire in order to rebound from his recent sub-par performance.

Key Matchups to Keep An Eye On

Von Miller vs. Jeremy Parnell

Jeremy Parnell and A.J. McCann have been two of the brighter spots for Jacksonville's offensive line.  Parnell is not a household name, but has performed admirably this year for the Jaguars.  He will have a tough battle going up against Von Miller, who will certainly be ready to feast on Bortles.  Look for Miller to add to his 12.5 sack total this weekend against Jacksonville.

Broncos secondary vs. Jaguars receivers

The No Fly Zone has done a tremendous job of shutting down passing attacks week after week, but the trio of the aformentioned Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns is worthy of praise and not a unit to take lightly.  The Broncos' cover men will have to play a spectacular game to keep these three receivers from having big games.

Broncos DL vs. Jaguars OL

The Jaguars' team YPC average is 4.1, but that's inflated due to Bortles' scrambling ability.  Truth be told, the Jaguars backs (Chris Ivory, T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson) are averaging only 3.7 YPC.
  The Broncos' run defense has been the bane on that side of the ball all year long. Can the Broncos keep one of the league's worst rushing offenses in check and force Bortles, who has a penchant for mistakes to win the game?  I think so, but it's definitely a matchup worth watching on Sunday.

Hart's Prediction

Tomorrow's affair against the Jaguars is a playoff game for the Broncos.  They have to win in order to keep pace with a heated AFC Playoff race that has a lot of teams chomping at the bit for a wild card birth.  Denver can't afford to lose on the road and it always seems like they struggle in Florida.  I expect the offense to have an added spark with Paxton Lynch at the helm, and Denver's defense to force a handful of turnovers to help secure a solid victory on the road.

Broncos, 27.  Jaguars, 17.