JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- **The Broncos need a win against the Jaguars to regain their footing in the playoff race, and they'll have to rely on rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch to help them get it.
But the game is about more than just Lynch. It's about having to deal with a team that is playing its best football of the season in recent weeks, despite coming in on a five-game losing streak.
The Jacksonville Jaguars' last four losses have all come by one score. Quarterback Blake Bortles has cut his turnovers in recent weeks, although his efforts will be hindered by the absence of WR Allen Hurns and the potential absence of TE Julius Thomas, who did not practice all week and is doubtful for the game.
Their defense has improved; its per-play average of 5.04 yards per play ranks sixth in the league, and its per-pass-play average of 5.84 yards is fifth.
"They're an extremely talented football team," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "If you look across the board, the talent that they have in place, I can think of six games that they've lost by less than a score to really good teams right now that are in the playoff hunt or are looking to be in the playoff hunt. We respect what they're doing playing good defense."
What are the keys to victory Sunday?
- TAKE WHAT'S THERE**
Jacksonville is the league's fourth-best team at allowing gains of 20 or more yards, permitting just one every 20.61 snaps. Only the Vikings, Broncos and Seahawks are better.
If the Jaguars concede open routes underneath, Lynch needs to trust them -- and trust players like Emmanuel Sanders and A.J. Derby to get yardage after the catch; that may be the best way to try and get explosive plays against the Jaguars' rapidly-improving defense.
2. FORCE BORTLES INTO TURNOVERS
And this is tougher than it would have been last year or at the start of the season.
Among the 27 quarterbacks with at least 600 total plays (attempts plus rushes plus times sacked) in the last two seasons, only four quarterbacks (Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jay Cutler) lose the football more often than Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles, who has a fumble or interception once every 24.86 plays. He has also been sacked once every 15.15 pass plays in that span; only eight quarterbacks with at least 600 plays have been sacked more often.
But Bortles has improved drastically in recent weeks in both areas. Since Week 4, when the Jaguars beat the Colts 30-27 in London, Bortles' giveaway rate and sack rate have improved drastically; he's been sacked just once every 29.55 pass plays, and he loses the football once every 36.2 plays.
Bottles' delivery remains unorthodox, with a low elbow point in his windup prior to his release of the football. But he has done a better job compensating for this.
"He does have a funky ball pattern, but regardless, if you can get to the quarterback you can always try to get that strip-sack and make those big plays," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.
3. LET PAXTON BE PAXTON
Kubiak said Friday that Lynch was capable of running the entire offense, but that it was key for him to not be overloaded, to have the team around him play well, and also, to "let him be free and let him play."
There are two aspects to this. First is to put him in situations where he can just quickly set and throw -- or make the decision to run. When he's in the pocket, make the decision in 2.5 seconds or fewer to fire the football or tuck it and run.
The other is to get him outside the pocket, taking advantage of play-action bootlegs to give him run-pass options -- and the chance to use his natural feel for the rush to extend the play. As seen last Sunday on Trevor Siemian's third-quarter touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor, the Broncos' receiving targets are more than capable of breaking off their routes and getting in position for the quarterback to find them.