Tonight’s matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars might not have much national intrigue due to both teams having struggled in recent years.
But there is an underlying factor that makes tonight’s game must-see TV around the NFL.
The Titans come into the game at 3-4, with two of their four losses inside the AFC South – having already lost at Houston and last week at home to Indianapolis. The Texans currently lead the division with a less-than-spectacular 4-3 record, meaning if the Titans win tonight, they could easily be tied for the division lead with the Texans and possibly the Colts after Sunday.
A loss, however, for the Titans would put them at 3-5, in the basement of the division and give them a third loss inside the division. Those are things that – even at the halfway point of the season – the Titans aren’t likely to recover from, even in a mediocre division.
On the other hand, the Jaguars might be even more desperate. They are 2-4, and might just be playing for Gus Bradley’s job tonight, with a mini bye coming up this weekend. The likeable Bradley is just 14-40 as he nears the halfway point of his fourth season. And reports from Jacksonville are that owner Shad Khan had a meeting with players and coaches for the second time this year.
On Sunday, a penalty-filled meltdown with two player ejections in an ugly loss to the Raiders certainly doesn’t help the notion that Bradley is in control of the team and has them headed in the right direction. Though Bradley could make it through the season, another poor showing won’t win him any extra job security.
Tonight’s game has plenty at stake – the Titans season vs. Bradley’s job.
First down: Pressure Blake Bortles – The Colts showed how to neutralize the Titans pass rush last week with lots of max protections that allowed Andrew Luck to find open receivers. The Titans need to get pressure on Bortles, who has already thrown nine interceptions this season. Tennessee also needs to rattle Bortles in the pocket to help out its inconsistent secondary that also will be missing two starters with Rashad Johnson and Perrish Cox both out.
Second down: Run the ball and include Marcus Mariota – The Titans have had no issues running the football for most of the season. DeMarco Murray’s resurgence is plenty proof of that. Look for Murray to have his usual 20 to 25 carries tonight as the Titans work to control the clock and move the chains, and then take shots in the passing game off play action. But the Titans shouldn’t forget Mariota’s rushing talents in this game. The QB seems to find a much better rhythm passing when there is opportunity for him to run. Why that is? It’s hard to say, but it just seems part of Mariota’s comfort zone, which he and the Titans need to consistently find.
Third down: Force a fumble – It’s hard to believe that seven games into the season the Titans defense has not forced a single fumble. You’d think one would happen just by accident or someone raking at the ball to knock it out. Think about that for a second. It’s not that they haven’t recovered a fumble. They haven’t even caused one. That is something that must change for a team that has, at times, had to weather Mariota’s fumble problems in the pocket.
Fourth down: No special teams screw-ups – Last week, the Titans vulnerable special teams unit was at it again. They botched an extra point and also allowed an onside kick they knew was coming to be corralled by the Colts. Special teams has been an on-going problem this season (and even longer than that actually), and the Titans may simply have to put a band-aid on the problem until they can make the necessary roster and scheme adjustments in the off-season.