Jacksonville Jaguars @ San Francisco 49ers
Start-time: Sunday, 21:05
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Jags can exploit the deficiencies in the Niners' secondary
Jimmy Garoppolo is now 5-0 as a starter in his fledgling NFL career, but the golden boy is surely about to take a hit to his perfect CV when the Jacksonville Jaguars come to visit Levi's Stadium tonight.
Indeed, let's not get ahead of ourselves with the early notion that the 26-year-old represents the long-term salvation of San Francisco. That's very much open to doubt. What is for certain, however, is that he has rejuvenated a lacklustre side on both sides of the ball, finding his receivers with unerring if not cannon-like accuracy, freeing up a jaded-but-talented defense with time to recuperate on the sidelines, and perhaps delivering that most prized of commodities: offensive hope.
Sadly, as the saying goes, hope dies last. And the glowing embers on San Francisco's season should be extinguished here by the strongest front four in the league. The Jaguars' bulwark defensive quartet are possessed of an ominous rush that's so expertly-marshalled that they often demand double-coverage, which naturally frees one or other of their crew up to bring the heat to opposing quarterbacks. Calais Campbell and Co, who are simply unblockable in half their moods, can stampede over the Niners' makeshift line to get to Garoppolo, and shut down his sub-prime receivers.
Which really just leaves this to Blake Bortles and his oh-so-solid rushing crew, led by running man Leonard Fournette, who's been greenlit to go this week. The Louisiana State grad is one of the finds of the current class, and has picked up the pace after a few leaner midseason weeks. Fournette's consistent ground gains move the chains, and allow Bortles to choose discretion as the better part of valour when trying to find his receivers. Indeed, the QB should thank his rookie RB for providing a sound platform which tempers the rash throwing which has blighted Bortles for much of his career - indeed, over much of this season's early course, too.
However, Bortles has now rediscovered some much-needed poise and composure, and if he can maintain it, there's no reason why the Jags can't find a higher Super Bowl gear to boss the AFC this year. While their receiving corps have also drawn praise (Marcedes Lewis is back from shoulder injury, while Jaydon Mickens is also proving a threat on kick-returns) the real turnaround has been the rebound to full fitness of the offensive line, featuring Jermey Parnell, Patrick Omameh and Brandon Linder. Jacksonville really are a well-drilled and balanced outfit right now, and I can see them comfortably covering the handicap on a few lines in Santa Clara, on the way to bigger postseason things.
Meanwhile, we may well see the first unravelling of Garoppolo for the 49ers, even at home. Chicago, Houston and Tennessee didn't truly test him, but when he fails to find the velocity on his passes (which regularly miss the spiral) the Jags could pick him off, or at least put him down.
Indeed, there's probably a reason Bill Belichick let him go in New England for a measly second-round draft pick. True, Garoppolo was an expensive benchwarmer and Tom Brady is in the sort of shape to see 2019 in under center. Yet Belichick doesn't make many mistakes when it comes to managing his roster, does he? So leave this to Fournette at first, then Bortles and his wideouts to take advantage of a porous San Fran secondary.