Over the course of the last decade, it hasn’t been too often that when the Jaguars and Titans play one another there is so much riding on the line. But for the last two years that hasn’t been the case.
Last December, Tennessee was looking to take the AFC South, but Marcus Mariota (right) suffered a broken leg on Christmas Eve against Jacksonville, and the Titans’ season was lost with their quarterback — no division title and for an eighth straight year, no playoffs.
A win on New Year’s Eve at home against the Jaguars, and the Titans would kick off 2018 the right way, playoff-bound for the first time in nine seasons.
A loss? Well, then things get complicated. Sure, the Titans can still make the playoffs at 8-8, but only if the Dolphins beat the Bills and Raiders beat the Chargers in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars already have the AFC South locked up and are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
And although they’ve got the No. 3 seed to themselves, the Jags won’t be resting their starters against Tennessee. Doug Marrone’s team has retribution on its mind, looking to avenge a 21-point home loss to their division rival back in Week 2. And if the Jags were to win, it wouldn’t only be sweet revenge, likely knocking out a division foe from playoff contention, but also preventing Jacksonville from playing Tennessee for a third time in the same season.
Jacksonville at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Running games
Both the Jags and Titans rely heavily on their ground games to make their respective offenses go. The league’s top-ranked rushing attack belongs to Jacksonville (145.3 yards per game) with Leonard Fournette leading the way. The fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, Fournette is just 29 yards away from 1,000. Although the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner has been hampered in recent weeks by a lingering quad injury, he is still expected to play on Sunday, but probably won’t see his usual allotment of carries.
Even if Fournette is limited, the Jags have plenty of talent left in their backfield to face the Titans’ top-five rushing defense with Chris Ivory, T.J. Yeldon, and Corey Grant, who have totaled nearly 900 yards on the ground backing up Fournette.
A season ago, the Titans were the league’s most dynamic rushing attack with DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry and a stout offensive line. This season, Murray has shown the fatigue of being an every-down back for seven seasons, attempting to resist the near-30 precipice that so many NFL running backs reach.
On top of that, Murray suffered a third-degree MCL tear in his right knee last week and after not parcticing this week he was ruled out on Saturday afternoon. Derrick Henry will get his second start of the season in Murray's absence. While Henry has been productive this season and is capable of handling a high number of carries, he’s not as effective as a receiver or in pass protection. The latter could be a huge issue a Jacksonville defense that leads the NFL in sacks.
Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota have taken their lumps this season, and really, their entire, limited NFL careers. Let’s be honest here, Bortles has been the brunt of many jokes since he made his debut in 2014, in fact, he’s been downright bad for the vast majority of his career. However, teams don’t magically turn into top-five scoring offenses without at least some form of decent quarterback play.
And that’s what Bortles has been, decent. He’s completing a higher number of passes (61 percent), throwing fewer interceptions (11), and reading defenses much quicker allowing him to make throws he would have missed in the past — all with a depleted receiving corps. I’m not clamoring for Bortles to win MVP. He hasn’t been great (only four 300-yard games), but he also doesn’t need to be, not when the Jacksonville defense allows less than 17 points per game and the team’s rushing attack is as effective as it’s been. While being a decent team can win the AFC South the days, if the Jags have any hopes of making any noise in the playoffs, Bortles has to be better than serviceable when the time comes. Decent won’t cut it.
I’m still holding out hope on Mariota. Yes, this year has been what some may call a bit of a “disaster” for the former Heisman Trophy winner. While he is still completing the same percentage of passes (62 percent) and averaging the same amount of yards per attempt (7.2) as he did in his first two seasons, something is still really off. Mariota has 15 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns in 14 games this season. So, what gives?
Many have pointed to the Titans’ offensive scheme under coordinator Terry Robiskie as the culprit. In recent weeks, the eye test (and actually scoring points) has shown just how much more comfortable Mariota is running the no-huddle offense and calling plays at the line scrimmage, sentiments that several offensive teammates have echoed. With the Titans’ playoff hopes on the line and facing Jacksonville’s ferocious defense, Mariota absolutely has to be able to stand in the pocket, take hits, and hit his spots, something he has struggled with all season long.
3. Playing for something
As previously mentioned, the Jaguars’ playoff destiny is set. No matter the outcome of Sunday’s game, they are the No. 3 seed in the AFC bracket. But who they play during Wild Card Weekend is TBD and this game will factor heavily into the equation – whether it ends up being the Ravens, Bills, or Titans for the third time. Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has already made it clear, it’s all hands on deck in Week 17, but for how long and at what cost?
Surely Marrone doesn’t want to play a division opponent for the third time in a season, and understandably so, but is there any point in the game against Tennessee in which he pulls the majority of his starters in favor of resting them for the more important game next weekend?
For the Titans, it’s almost do-or-die and quite frankly it’s embarrassing that they are even in this situation, considering just a few short weeks ago they were 8-4 and in complete control of their playoff fate. But losing three straight games in December, including to two teams under .500 and then blowing a lead at home against the Rams last week, the Titans are now backed in a corner. How do they respond?
Questions are now swirling about Mike Mularkey’s ability to lead this team as its head coach. A loss on Sunday, puts his squad’s fate in the hands of other teams, and potentially missing the playoffs for a second straight season after division titles were well within their grasp, could spell the end of Mularkey’s tenure in Nashville.
The Titans have looked off since their Week 3 victory against the Seahawks. Even the wins have looked uninspiring and flat, often times against what seemed to be inferior opponents (Colts, Browns, Texans). The current three-game losing streak has come at the worst possible time, with their playoff hopes in the balance and against a Jaguars team seeking payback for an earlier loss. What’s the degree of confidence that the Titans will respond with their season on the line, when they couldn’t muster the effort needed to close out the likes of the lowly Cardinals and 49ers just a few weeks ago?
Prediction: Jaguars 22, Titans 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.