Cardinals thinking playoffs, Jaguars thinking only of improvement

The joy for the Jacksonville Jaguars was their first win of the year. The reality was a 1-8 record, tied for worst in the NFL, the only drama remaining whether they lose enough games the rest of the way to get the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios was sheer relief.

"We've been the butt of jokes," running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "When you see that on TV, and your kids hear it ... it hasn't been fun. Guys have never complained about it, but it's tough. You put in 70 hours a week preparing for a game, expecting to win, and then you come out with a loss and have to hear the nonsense."

There was talk this team might be the worst in history if it finished the year without a win. The Jaguars were outscored 264-86 in their first eight games, an average deficit of more than three touchdowns. In three games on their home field, they have scored a safety and three field goals.

One win doesn't make Jacksonville a juggernaut.

Even as the Jaguars try to build on that 29-27 victory last week at Tennessee, they are reminded of their recent futility. A victory Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals would give Jacksonville its first winning streak since December 2010, when it won all of two straight.

Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer remembers how those hopeless seasons felt toward the end of his time in Cincinnati and last year in Oakland.

"I think the frustration just starts to set in," Palmer said. "You've got to continue to prepare, you've got to continue to practice and do everything you're doing if you were 8-1. You can't take any time off. You've got to take great care of your body and study your opponent. Those are the things that can slip if you're not careful."

The Cardinals are mindful of this game. They are on the fringe of playoff contention in the NFC, and with a strong schedule ahead of them — Indianapolis next week, closing out the season at Seattle and home to San Francisco — these are the games they can't lose.

"We're 5-4 and have a chance to make a run," Palmer said. "We feel like we're in a good spot. Our defense has been playing phenomenally, and offensively we're continuing to get better and better. We're not exactly where we need to be and we're not happy with where we are. Hopefully, this week we'll come out and play great football and get ourselves in an even better spot to get in the playoffs."

One reason Arizona is a touchdown favorite is because Jacksonville hasn't scored a touchdown at home since last December. The Cardinals also have a strong defense, particularly up front, that won't make it any easier on the league's worst offense.

Here are five things to watch for in a game far more critical to Arizona than Jacksonville:

TURNOVERS: Only the New York Giants (28) and Minnesota Vikings (23) have more turnovers than Arizona (21). Most of them have come from Palmer and his 15 interceptions. Arizona coach Bruce Arians said about half of them were the quarterback's fault. He said better protection will keep Palmer from getting rid of the ball (and making poor decisions) sooner than he wants. The good news for the Cards? The Jaguars have a league-low 12 sacks this year.

FINDING THE END ZONE: More amazing than the Jaguars losing their first eight games by double digits? They haven't scored a touchdown on their home field since a short TD pass in the first quarter on Dec. 23, 2012. Josh Scobee, the kicker, has scored nine fewer points than the offense combined this year. At home, the offense has accounted for three field goals. The defense provided a safety.

ARIZONA'S FRONT SEVEN: The Cardinals are No. 3 in the NFL against the run, while the Jaguars are last in the league rushing the ball. Maurice Jones-Drew, slowed by a bum knee, is averaging 3.0 yards per carry, a career low by more than a yard. "It's going to be one of the better fronts that we've played," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "We've played some good ones, too. But they are disruptive."

RUNNING ROOKIE: Andre Ellington is making a big impact as a sixth-round draft pick. The rookie running back has 388 yards on 54 carries, and his 7.19-yard average is tops among running backs in the NFL. Ellington was in for slightly more plays than Rashard Mendenhall last week, and Arians said he likes the shared workload.

FITZGERALD AND SHORTS: Cecil Shorts III, the Jaguars' top receiver now that Justin Blackmon is serving another suspension, likes to study opposing receivers. He has found a mentor in Larry Fitzgerald. Shorts went to Minnesota this summer to work in one of Fitzgerald's camps. Fitzgerald, at 30 already the youngest receiver in NFL history with 800 receptions, needs 94 yards to become the youngest to reach 11,000 yards.


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