Tennessee interim head coach Mike Mularkey leads his 2-7 Titans to the place where his last head coaching venture ended, Jacksonville. Things started out well enough for the Titans in 2015, starting with the 42-14 stomping of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota had a record day. After that, nothing went right.
Former head coach Ken Whisenhunt was fired after six straight losses and inexplicably allowing Mariota, the franchise cornerstone, to return to a game in which he was obviously hurt. Two weeks ago, the Titans looked like a rejuvenated squad, albeit against a bad Saints team with an atrocious defense. Even after last week’s loss to the undefeated Panthers and the AFC South being what it is (awful), the Titans are still somewhat “in the hunt.” That being said, a loss to the Jaguars on Thursday night would essentially end the season for the Titans.
The Jaguars (3-6) have a fantastic opportunity to put themselves in the thick of the AFC South race with the Texans and Colts. Three of Jacksonville's next four games are against the Titans and Colts. Two wins against the Titans knocks Tennessee out of contention completely and a win against the Colts should get the Jags within a game of winning the division. Are the Jags up for the test?
Tennessee at Jacksonville
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: NFL Network
Line: Tennessee +3
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has been showing glimpses of improvement as the season progresses, throwing for 13 TDs in his last five games. Interceptions, however, are still are an issue for Bortles. His 11 interceptions account for most of the Jaguars' 15 total turnovers. Bortles' play against the Titans fifth-ranked pass defense will be vital.
One advantage that Bortles will have on Thursday night over Mariota is his talented wide receiver corps gets to face a beat-up Titans secondary. Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are turning into one of the best wide receiver tandems in the AFC. Both Hurns and Robinson have seven receiving touchdowns this season, good for third in the AFC. Hurns set a franchise record last week against the Ravens with his seventh straight game with a TD catch and Robinson currently sits fifth in the AFC with 758 yards receiving. The Titans will likely be without cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson on Thursday night.
Eight of Marcus Mariota’s 13 touchdown passes have come in two games: Week 1 against the Bucs and two weeks ago against the Saints — the only two games the Titans have won this season. Take away the two outstanding games and Mariota has struggled. In the Titans' five losses that Mariota has played, the rookie has thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) while posting an average QBR of 33.9. Thursday night’s matchup against the 24th-ranked Jaguar defense provides Mariota with a significant opportunity to bounce back from last week’s uninspiring performance against the Panthers.
2. Pressuring the Quarterbacks
Last week against the Panthers, the Titans' defense was able to sack Cam Newton five times, the most either team has surrendered or given up this season. Bortles is athletic, but he's nowhere the caliber of Newton. With a thinner Titans secondary playing on a short week, Bortles might have more time to make some throws. But the Jaguars are one of the worst teams at protecting their quarterback, as Bortles has been sacked 28 times this season. Only four teams have given up more.
One of those teams, however, is the Titans, who have surrendered 29 sacks and also have allowed the third-most QB hits this season with 65. Since Mariota is still probably limited from his MCL injury, look for Jags defensive coordinator Bob Babich to dial up scores of blitz packages to throw at the rookie QB.
3. This Could Get Ugly
I don’t think anyone is expecting a Giants-Patriots type performance from the Jags and Titans on Thursday night. The Jags and Titans have five wins between them in a combined 18 games. Only one of those wins has come against a winning team, when the Jaguars beat the now 5-4 Buffalo Bills in London.
Both teams feature quarterbacks that are still learning the position and aren't protected very well by their offensive lines. Neither team features a valuable running game, as the Titans and Jags rank 25th and 26th in rushing offense — both under 1,000 yards for the season.
The Titans' offense is lacking in any constant firepower, ranking in the bottom third in total yards, points per game, first downs, third downs converted, and turnover margin — and the Jacksonville offense isn’t too far behind or ahead in these categories either.
Compound poor offense with middle-of-the-road defense from both teams and a ridiculously short work week and this game could be very, very ugly to watch.
This game could go either way. The Jaguars certainly have more to play for since they are only a game back for the AFC South lead, while the Titans' future is full of uncertainty regarding the coaching staff and front office. If the Titans hope to steal their third road victory on the season, they must get to Blake Bortles early and often, forcing him into bad throws and turnovers. Neither team has the ability to run the ball with much effectiveness. This game is going to come down to quarterback play. Advantage: Bortles and the Jags.
Prediction: Jaguars 24, Titans 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.