JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)The Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t played many meaningful December games over the last dozen years.
They’re usually so far out of the AFC South race by then that mock drafts are the only postseason scenarios that matter to the small-market franchise. But having won three of their last five games – combined with Tennessee’s three-game skid – the Jaguars (5-8) suddenly find themselves in the playoff picture late.
It’s a common spot for the Dallas Cowboys (10-3).
The Cowboys and Jaguars both have something at stake when they meet in Jacksonville on Sunday for the first time since 2006. Dallas can clinch a postseason berth for the second consecutive year, a feat ”America’s Team” last accomplished in 2007.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, need a victory to either keep pace with or close the gap on the AFC South-leading Titans. It’s a rarity for Jacksonville this late in the season; the team has finished last in the division each of the last four years and was in playoff contention down the stretch just once previously since 2010.
”We all understand how important this game is,” Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. ”Every game is important, but especially with where we’re at. The situation we put ourselves in with some of those losses early, it’s just where we’re at.
”Backs up against the wall and we’ve got to fight our way out, and I think we’ve got the perfect group to do it. We understand how big this game is and every game moving forward this stretch is huge, so we’ve got a great opportunity.”
The Cowboys have won four in a row, including the last two against Indianapolis and Houston from the AFC South, and six of seven to gain a stranglehold on an NFL wild-card spot. NFC East-leading Philadelphia remains within reach, too, but Dallas needs help – and really needs to avoid a letdown in Jacksonville.
”December football is just about doing the right things, small things right,” said Cowboys pass rusher Dante Fowler, who is returning to the team that drafted him third overall in 2015. ”At this point, I feel like the only way to beat us is if we beat ourselves. So, we just have to stay on the small things and all the little things don’t have to take care of themselves.”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is a believer in how the months of the season are different, and his Dallas teams have made him look good when it comes to the most important month.
The Cowboys have won nine in a row in December and are 9-1 in the month since McCarthy was hired in 2020. That’s tied with Kansas City for the most December victories in the NFL in that stretch.
A third consecutive game against the AFC South has given the Cowboys a window into an uncommon opponent they wouldn’t normally get. The Jaguars already played Indianapolis twice and Houston once.
”Any time you play an uncommon opponent, you want to see what their division opponents do against them,” McCarthy said. ”We’ve seen a lot of Jacksonville so far getting ready for Indianapolis.”
Dallas has played just once previously in Jacksonville, a 24-17 loss in 2006 that included Drew Bledsoe and Byron Leftwich as starting quarterbacks. The teams played in London in 2016, a ”home game” for Jacksonville. The other five meetings took place in Dallas.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT ZEKE
Tony Pollard is taking over the spotlight in Dallas’ backfield with a career-best 12 total touchdowns, one more than his first three seasons combined. He’s the best playmaker and most dangerous scoring threat the Cowboys have. Still, two-time rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott is quietly putting together some impressive numbers.
Elliott has at least one touchdown run in six consecutive games, the longest streak of his career. With one against the Jaguars, he and all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith would be the only Cowboys running backs with rushing TDs in at least seven straight games. Smith set the franchise record by scoring in each of the final 14 games of the 1995 season, playoffs included.
Elliott scored the go-ahead touchdown against Houston on a 2-yard run with 41 seconds remaining.
”Ezekiel Elliott is the epitome of this team,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. ”Right here on that play, I told the offensive line, `Hey, I am giving this to Zeke, no ifs, ands or buts about it.”’
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