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Jaguars learn how integral WR Christian Kirk is to their offense during consecutive losses

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Christian Kirk was more important to Jacksonville’s offense than anyone realized.

The Jaguars (8-5) are 0-2 since Kirk injured his groin on the team’s opening play last Monday against Cincinnati. They had chances to beat the Bengals that night and plenty of opportunities to win at Cleveland on Sunday, but Kirk’s fellow receivers dropped the ball — literally in some instances.

Calvin Ridley finished with four catches for 53 yards on a season-high 13 targets in a 31-27 loss to the Browns. He had a notable miscommunication with Trevor Lawrence in the second quarter that led to an interception.

Zay Jones had five receptions for 29 yards on a career-high-tying 14 targets Sunday. He had a drop and looked a step slow while playing with a brace on his right knee.

Lawrence completed 9 of 27 passes for 82 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions, when targeting Ridley and Jones. That might say a lot about Cleveland’s cornerbacks, but it also shows how integral Kirk was to the team’s system.

Kirk had 57 receptions for 787 yards and three touchdowns before landing on injured reserve. He’s expected to have core-muscle surgery and miss several more games. He's the team’s best route-runner and its most sure-handed receiver, a safety blanket of sorts for Lawrence, especially on third down.

“That’s the thing about this league: No one really cares who you are missing,” Lawrence said. “There are a lot of teams who are missing players at this point in the season, but 100 percent miss Christian. He’s one of our best players. Makes a huge impact on this offense and this team.

“We have to find a way to still win games without him. That’s not going to change in the next few weeks. We have to find a way, and I have all the confidence that we will.”

Rookie Parker Washington caught a touchdown pass for the second consecutive game while filling Kirk’s spot in the slot. But he also fumbled on the opening drive of the third quarter, giving the Browns a short field that led to a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

“Obviously, we miss Christian,” coach Doug Pederson said. “He was a big part of the offense. But where we are in the season, this late, it’s the next-man up mentality. So we’ve got to continue as coaches to prepare our players and get those guys ready to go regardless of who’s in there.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Despite the back-to-back losses, the Jaguars have enjoyed their best stretch of red zone scoring this season. Jacksonville scored touchdowns on all four red zone possessions against the Browns and was 3 for 3 against the Bengals.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Jacksonville’s pass defense has been almost nonexistent the last two games. Cleveland's Joe Flacco threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns against the Jaguars, six days after Jake Browning threw for 354 yards and a score.

The Jaguars played most of those games without cornerbacks Tyson Campbell (quadriceps) and Tre Herndon (concussion), but they also have issues related to an inconsistent pass rush, especially from the middle of the defensive line.

STOCK UP

Rookie safety Antonio Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick from Texas A&M, was one of Jacksonville’s few bright spots against the Browns. Johnson had a sack/fumble in the third quarter that helped the Jaguars get back in the game and deflected a pass on Cleveland’s next possession.

STOCK DOWN

Defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris managed one tackle in the last two games despite playing a combined 101 snaps. Jacksonville had hoped to lean on Robertson-Harris while Foley Fatukasi (heel) and DaVon Hamilton (back infection) recover from injuries, but the seventh-year pro hasn’t had more than a single tackle in his last five outings.

INJURIES

Receiver/returner Jamal Agnew (shoulder/ribs) could return from injured reserve this week. ... Jacksonville has three left tackles injured, with Ezra Cleveland joining Cam Robinson (knee) and Walker Little (hamstring) on the sideline. Cleveland, a guard the Jags acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline, played 26 snaps at his college position against the Browns before injuring a knee. He is considered day-to-day. Safety Andre Cisco, already dealing with a sprained shoulder, now has a groin injury.

KEY NUMBER

1 — The number of games Jacksonville is ahead of Houston and Indianapolis in the AFC South. All three teams lost Sunday.

NEXT STEPS

The Jaguars need to beat AFC-best Baltimore (10-3) on Sunday night to have any shot at being the No. 1 seed in the conference.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

Mark Long, The Associated Press