Just ask Green Bay, which was a double-digit favorite at home against a struggling Arizona team that won two of its first 11 games, yet posted a 20-17 victory over the Packers on Sunday.
Or, ask the Indianapolis Colts, one of the hottest teams in the NFL last week with a five-game winning streak. The Colts went to Jacksonville on Sunday to take on a Jaguars team that was deflated and frustrated with a seven-game losing streak. Yet the Jaguars pulled off a 6-0 win.
That’s why there won’t be any Tennessee Titans players taking Jacksonville lightly in an abbreviated work-week with the teams playing on Thursday night.
The Titans are in the hunt for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, tied with three other teams all sporting 6-6 records and a game behind Baltimore (7-5), which is in that final playoff spot — at least for this week.
But the Titans would fall behind Miami, Indianapolis and Denver in a tiebreaker if they were to finish in a tie for the sixth and final playoff spot. That puts Tennessee 10th in the playoff hunt, which doesn’t sound good unless you compare it to Jacksonville, which sits 14th in the playoff race, ahead of only the New York Jets (3-9) and Oakland (2-10).
While there is still a mathematical chance that the Jaguars could make the playoffs at 8-8, there is no longer talk about the playoffs in their locker room. Even with the win over Indianapolis last week, it turned playoff talk into “finish strong” talk.
“We’re all professionals and we take pride in our game,” Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We want to finish as strong as we can and put together a winning streak. There’s no reason we can’t win these final five games and at least get to 8-8. That’s not the record we wanted, but right now that’s the goal we’re striving to get.”
The first of the five is behind them with the win over the Colts. But now come the Titans, a team that has had Jacksonville’s number in recent years (winning five of the last six meetings). This is Jacksonville’s most-despised team, dating back to the Titans’ AFC Championship game win over the Jaguars in 2000 that cost Jacksonville its best chance of appearing in the Super Bowl until last year’s fiasco against New England in the AFC title game. The Tennessee loss came on Jacksonville’s home turf, was the third straight win by the Titans over the Jaguars that season, and strengthened former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher’s claim as Jacksonville being the Titans’ “home away from home.”
Fisher has long since departed from Tennessee but the memories of Tennessee’s dominance over the Jaguars in the early 2000s (10 wins in a 12-game span from 1998 to 2003) still haunts many Jaguars fans. But with the recent Titans success in the series, it’s rekindled some bitter memories.
“Tennessee has an excellent defense. The front seven is outstanding: big, strong, powerful,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “Linebackers are downhill, hit. Secondary plays well. We’re going to have to do a good job up front. It’ll be a great challenge for those guys on the (offensive) line.”
Among those challenged, will be two players who were starters with the lowly New York Giants (also 4-8) but who were released because they weren’t getting the job done. Now, offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and guard Patrick Omameh line up next to each other in the Jaguars’ starting lineup. Add in backup center Tyler Shatley and it makes a trio of players who are only starting because of injuries to others.
Flowers and Omameh will have a major task on hand Thursday as both will likely take on the Titans’ talented defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. At 305 pounds, Casey is a load to contain. His strength is his ability to stuff runners at the line, not a good mix for the Jaguars who like to run Leonard Fournette off the left side of the line, right where Casey will be stationed.
“He’s tough. We probably don’t have enough guys to put on him at a time,” Marrone said about Casey. “He has always played well. He’s one of the better inside players in the league. He’s up there when you mention Aaron Donald and players like that that play inside; he’s right up there with them. I have a lot of respect for him.
“Their whole defense, all of those guys play extremely hard. They really do. Their effort is outstanding. We have not played well against them, that’s a fact.”
The Titans know what the Jaguars’ defense is capable of, considering they shut out the Colts on Sunday. Tennessee must get a lead and not allow the Jaguars to find any momentum early the game. Chances are, if the Titans can gain the upper hand early, the Jaguars won’t have a whole lot to play for on the road on a short week and out of contention.
The Titans need to stay balanced on offense to keep the Jaguars’ defense off balance.
Defensively, the Titans need to confuse new starter Cody Kessler, who led the Jags to a win in his first start, even though he and the offense managed only two field goals. The Jaguars probably won’t take many chances with Kessler, which means the Titans will have to stop Fournette and the running game in order to put the game in Kessler’s hands.