Are you ready for some AFC South football? We hope so. Because that's what you're getting on Thursday night.
The seemingly annual Thursday Night clash between the Titans and Jaguars is here, and it is probably not going to be spectacular, given the recent history of what games between these two teams has looked like. But what this game could be, though, is important.
The Titans are 6-6 and hanging on the edges of the AFC playoff race. If they manage to get a badly-needed win this week, it could propel them back into the picture -- especially when you consider what their upcoming schedule looks like. The Jags are 4-8 and almost surely out of the playoffs, but this is the first of four opportunities for them to spoil the hopes of playoff wannabes down the stretch.
What should you be looking out for tonight (8:20 p.m., NFL Network)? We're glad you asked.
The Titans have perhaps the NFL's most inconsistent offense.
Just since their bye week, the Titans have scored 28 points against the Cowboys and 34 against the Patriots in back-to-back wins, followed it up with 10 points against the Colts and 17 against the Texans in back-to-back losses, and then hung 26 on the Jets in another win last week. They've been held to 10 points or fewer three times. They have four games with zero turnovers and four games with multiple turnovers. They've had three games with less than 100 rushing yards and three games with 150 or more.
Marcus Mariota has three games with a passer rating of 119 or better and three games with a passer rating of 62 or worse. Corey Davis had two catches for 34 yards in Week 4, exploded for 9 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown in Week 4, and then combined for 8 catches for 83 yards over the next three games combined. Dion Lewis emerged as the team's lead back with an average of more than 21 touches a game and 5.4 yards per touch during Weeks 7-10, but has averaged just 11 touches per game and 3.2 yards per touch in three games since.
There is seemingly no way to tell which particular version of the Titans' offense we will see in any given game, as their performance has little carryover from one week to the next. Again, this is a team that scored 9 points against the Jags back in Week 3 and then followed it with 26 against the Eagles. They scored 34 against the Patriots and then 10 against the Colts. There is no rhyme or reason about anything with these guys.
That said, they have pretty consistently had trouble moving the ball against the Jaguars defense since the start of last year ... but they've won all three games against them anyway, largely because the Jaguars' offense can't seem to move the ball against the Titans (or anyone else), either, and has consistently gifted Tennessee short fields to work with. In the first game these two teams played last year, for example, the Titans started five of their 12 drives in Jaguars territory, and those drives accounted for 24 of their 37 points. In the other two games against these Jags, the Titans totaled 24 points -- scoring one touchdown and six field goals on 24 drives.
This year's version of Jacksonville's defense is not quite as dominant as last year's, but we saw just last week how they are still capable of locking down even the best of opposing offenses. When their front four is getting pressure they are extremely tough to beat, and if you can't control the line of scrimmage in the run game you are going to end up in poor down-and-distance situations, allowing those guys to pin their ears back and come after the cornerback, which allows Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and company to be even more aggressive in taking away passing lanes on the outside.
Tennessee's offensive line, much like the rest of the team, has been inconsistent this season, and there is no telling which version of that unit will show up. If Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, and company can keep the pass rush at bay, maybe Mariota can sit in the pocket and wait for one of his guys to spring open. If not, it could be a long night, full of more field goals.
Honestly, the less said about the Jaguars' offense, the better.
The Jags are almost completely dependent on Leonard Fournette to do pretty much everything, but pretty much the only thing Fournette has been any good at this season is touching the ball a lot of times. Fournette cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark during his rookie year almost entirely due to heavy volume. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry but the Jags had little else in the way of offensive talent so they just kept giving him the ball. He's been even less efficient this year, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
He's only lasted a full game three times, having been injured midway through Jacksonville's Week 1 and Week 4 victories, and during the three games that he's lasted the whole way, Fournette has taken his 70 carries for just 243 yards. He's scored four touchdowns on the ground, but they've all been force-feeds close to the goal line -- two from a yard out, one from two yards out, and one from five yards out. The staunch desire the Jags have to feed him the ball as often as possible also puts them in a conservative offensive shell and leads them to prioritize not losing rather than winning; and that often results in them losing anyway, as it did against the Steelers when they ran Fournette into the center of the line a bunch of times and let Pittsburgh sneak away with a win in a game where they really never should have had a chance.
Handing the ball to Fournette, though, is still likely the best offensive option Jacksonville has. Unsurprisingly to anyone that had seen him play prior to this year, Blake Bortles was once again Blake Bortles this season. It was very obvious to anyone not named Jason Mendoza that the Jaguars were winning games in spite of Bortles' performance during their run to the AFC title game in 2017, but his offseason wrist surgery necessitated that they bring him back this year because fifth-year options are guaranteed for injury. That didn't mean the Jaguars had to come into the season with no serious competition for Bortles, though, and doing so undermined any chance they had for offensive success. During the best passing season in NFL history, Bortles actually saw his numbers take an across-the-board drop this season.
The Jags summarily benched Bortles in favor of Cody Kessler, who is so much not the answer that he was traded to the Jaguars by the Browns for a conditional seventh-round pick. Kessler has completed 72 percent of his passes while in the lineup but he is averaging a pitiful 5.7 yards per attempt and has also taken sacks even more often than Bortles, undermining the offense's ability to move the ball.
The Titans defense is vulnerable through the air, especially on the perimeter, but the Jaguars simply do not have the weapons or the quarterback to take advantage of that fact. The Donte Moncrief, Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole receiving trio is scaring exactly nobody, and even if they could get open downfield against Malcolm Butler or Adoree' Jackson or Logan Ryan, it's extremely unlikely that Kessler would be willing or able to push the ball downfield himself and find them. More likely, the Jaguars try to use Fournette to control the clock and keep the Tennessee offense on the sideline. But that effort is likely to prove futile.
Prediction: Titans 17, Jaguars 10