NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jaguars second-year quarterback Blake Bortles and Saints rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony will be matching wits before each snap by Jacksonville's offense on Sunday.
Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux, who emerged as a surprise starter in his first NFL season, could find himself trying to slow down the likes of second-year receiver Alan Robinson, whose 13 touchdowns through last week were tied for the NFL lead and who was selected as a first alternate for the Pro Bowl.
These are but some examples of matchups that will showcase why things could be looking up in Jacksonville (5-9) and New Orleans (5-9), even if neither team is going anywhere this season.
"What's important for all young guys is that it's a growth process throughout the season and I know my goal is to finish these last two games strong," said Anthony, who's been credited with 101 total tackles, a sack, an interception and forced fumble this season to go with his blocked extra-point return for two points.
"Jacksonville has a ton of young talent, especially at the receiver position. Blake is awesome. He can make every throw on the field."
Bortles' 31 touchdowns passing are a Jaguars single-season record. He needs one more 300-yard game to tie Mark Brunell's club record of six such games in one season.
The Saints' defense has struggled most of the season, but there have been highlight moments for a number of young players such as rookie Hau'oli Kikaha, who has four sacks and four forced fumbles, and second-year pro Kasim Edebali, whose five sacks rank second on the club. Breaux has two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
"I know they've given up some points, but it's a young team that plays very hard, very aggressive and I think they do a really good job of going after the ball," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said.
"They've got some takeaways. From start to finish you see a team that plays with a lot of energy, so I think you've seen them get better within the scheme each week, so we'll see."
Some things to know about Jaguars-Saints:
EXTENDING PLAYS: Saints coach Sean Payton said he's been impressed by the way Bortles uses his mobility to buy time to throw, which makes it all the more difficult for defenders to cover Robinson and fellow second-year receiver Alan Hurns, who needs 93 yards receiving to join Robinson in the 1,000-yard club this season.
"They're getting the ball down the field as well as anyone," Payton said. "The confidence level he has in the two receivers — both Robinson and Hurns — you see plays that are stretched, you see those guys competing for balls above their head."
YOUNG HANDS: Two of the Saints' top receivers this season are also second year-pros: Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. Cooks was a 2014 first-round draft choice who is living up to expectations with 993 yards and eight TDs. Snead went undrafted in 2014 and didn't make his regular season debut until this season, but also might reach 1,000 yards. Both made a career-high 10 catches in last Monday night's loss to Detroit.
"It makes me look forward to the future. Those are two guys that just continue to get better with each game," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
"The more opportunities we have to play together and to practice together, and just to continue to build this offense around their strengths, I think that's great."
BREES' FOOT: Brees could be seen limping during Monday night's loss to the Lions because of what the 36-year-old QB later confirmed was a tear of his plantar fascia ligament in his right foot. Yet Brees never missed a snap, finishing with 341 yards and 3 TDs, most of which occurred after the injury. Backups Matt Flynn and Garrett Grayson both got some first-team snaps this week in case they were needed, but Brees asserted he had "every intention" of being ready to play by Sunday.
THIRD-DOWN TROUBLE: After failing to convert a third down for the second time in coach Gus Bradley's three seasons, the Jaguars spent extra time working on the key down in practice this week. The Jags, who went 0 for 8 on third down in a loss to Atlanta, added 13 of those scenarios to practices Wednesday and Thursday. "We've got to do a better job of staying on schedule and being aware of first and second downs to get us into third down and manageable situations," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said.
COLLEGE REUNION: Olson was quarterbacks coach at Purdue (1997-2000) and was instrumental in developing Brees into a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1999 and 2000. Brees' college success also got Olson into the NFL. "It's amazing how fast the time has gone that he and I both came in the league together in the same year," Olson said. "Very proud of his accomplishments. He's a great player. He'll go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to play in the league."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Jacksonville, Florida, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted on Sun, December 27, 2015
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer