Titans striving for bounce-back win over Jaguars
When last we visited the Tennessee Titans, the outlook was bright.
But one week and one loss to the league's lone winless team later, a legitimate playoff challenge has been dulled to the annual ritual of "try to win your game, and cross fingers for help."
The Titans, who dropped a 27-13 decision at Indianapolis last week, try to rebound on Christmas Eve when another of their AFC South rivals, the Jacksonville Jaguars, come to LP Field for Saturday's Week 16 clash.
Tennessee is locked in at second place in the division behind the already- clinched Houston Texans. It stands eighth overall in the conference standings, one game and an all-important two slots behind the No. 6 New York Jets, who now hold the final Wild Card playoff position with two games remaining.
"We don't have control anymore," rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. "We'll have to see how some other teams do, and we'll see how it all plays out. We can't go out there and just give up."
Tennessee finishes its season next week at Houston, which is already playing a third-stringer at quarterback thanks to injuries and could be in the position to rest other key players for the finale pending its own seeding position after this weekend.
Also working in the Titans' favor is the fact that the Jaguars have won just once in seven road games this season and were gashed for 41 points -- including 280 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air -- last week at Atlanta.
It was interim head coach Mel Tucker's third game since taking over for the fired Jack Del Rio on Nov. 29.
So far with Tucker at the helm, Jacksonville has lost by a 38-14 count at home to San Diego, posted a 41-14 rout over slumping Tampa Bay and lost by 27 to the Falcons in Georgia.
"Obviously, the season we've had is horrible," Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. The only way we can kind of save it or feel better as much as we can is by winning the next two, starting off with a win in Tennessee."
Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who exited a Dec. 11 game against New Orleans with a strained left calf and was questionable before getting the start against the Colts, completed 27-of-40 passes for 223 yards and two interceptions in last week's loss. He's thrown for 691 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions in his last five starts.
Rookie Jake Locker impressed in the veteran's absence against New Orleans two weeks ago, then played the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game and completed 11-of-16 throws for 108 yards and a touchdown. He has 530 yards, four touchdown passes and no turnovers in his last three games.
But as of right now, Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak is leaning on experience over momentum.
"We're still in the playoff hunt and [Hasselbeck's] the quarterback that got us there," Munchak said. "I think that's what you have to go with. The guy who has the experience, the guy that's been in playoff situations, the guy that's been in the Super Bowl.
"After what he's meant to us this year and how well he has played throughout the season for us, I think we have to give him the opportunity to finish the job. We've got to man up and play our best game to win."
Tennessee comes in with an 18-15 lead in its overall regular-season series with Jacksonville, but the Jaguars did edge the Titans by a 16-14 count at EverBank Field in the 2011 season opener. Jacksonville has lost in its trip to Nashville in each of the past three years, however, with the most recent defeat a 30-3 shellacking during Week 6 of the 2010 campaign, but was able to avenge that setback with a 17-6 home triumph later that year. The Jaguars' last victory at LP Field occurred in 2007, a 28-13 decision, and they'll be aiming for their first home-and-sweep of Tennessee since 2005.
These teams have also met one time before in the playoffs, with Tennessee scoring a 33-14 road win over the Jags in the 1999 AFC Championship.
Munchak dropped his only prior meeting with Jacksonville as a head coach with the Week 1 loss, while Tucker will be opposing both the Titans and Munchak for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in this past April's draft, has at least one touchdown pass in four of five career road starts. He registered his first and only road win against an AFC South opponent on Nov. 13 at Indianapolis. Jones-Drew needs just two rushing touchdowns to surpass Fred Taylor (62) for most in team history and has 73 career scores, the most ever by a Jacksonville player. He has an NFL-best 1,338 rushing yards in 2011 and needs only 58 more to surpass a career-best of 1,391 in 2009, and can challenge Taylor's single-season franchise record of 1,572 rush yards set in 2003 with a strong final two games. Jones-Drew aims for a third consecutive game with 100- plus rushing yards at Tennessee as well on Saturday. Marcedes Lewis has the most receiving yards (2,639) and touchdown catches (17) by a tight end in club history, while young wide receiver Chastin West posted the first touchdown reception of his career with a 16-yard connection from Gabbert last week.
Cornerback Jason McCourty leads the Tennessee defense with 90 tackles and fellow corner Cortland Finnegan has three interceptions in his past three games at home against the Jaguars. Up front, Casey has 44 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble through the first 14 games, while another rookie -- linebacker Akeem Ayers -- has 65 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in his debut season.
Statistically speaking, the Jaguars on offense are 29th in scoring (14.8 ppg), dead last in both total yards (256.3 ypg) and passing (137.2 ypg) and 12th in rushing (119.1 ypg). Tennessee's defense is eighth in scoring (19.9 ppg), 19th in yards allowed (356.8 ypg), 15th against the pass (229.1 ypg) and 23rd against the run (127.7 ypg).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
In three career starts against the Jaguars, Hasselbeck (2924 passing yards) has completed 60-of-100 passes for 750 yards with eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a 97.5 passer rating. The veteran also needs just 76 passing yards to reach 3,000 for the eighth time as a pro. Running back Chris Johnson (930 rushing yards) needs 70 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the fourth consecutive season to start his career, and in 11 career home games against the AFC South, averages 95.4 rushing yards per game. With 38 career rushing touchdowns, he needs just two more to join Hall of Famer Earl Campbell (73) and Eddie George (64) as the only players to reach 40 in club history. Wide receiver Nate Washington (66 receptions) needs four catches to become the first Titans wide receiver to reach 70 receptions in a season since 2004, when Derrick Mason had 96 and Drew Bennett added 80. Washington has an AFC-best 27 receptions on third down, while counterpart Lavelle Hawkins had career-bests in receptions (8) and receiving yards (88) last week. Also last week, tight end Jared Cook became the first Titan at the position to reach 100 receiving yards in a game since Bo Scaife in September of 2008 after gaining 103 against the Colts.
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny leads the Jaguars defense with 110 tackles and end Jeremy Mincey has a career-best 5 1/2 sacks in 2011. Safety Dwight Lowery had an interception in the season opening win against Tennessee, but is questionable for this week's contest due to a shoulder injury.
By the numbers, Tennessee's offense is 24th in scoring (19.9 ppg), 17th in total yards (328.1 ypg), 13th in passing (236.1 ypg) and second-to-last in rushing (91.9 ypg). The Jaguars on defense are 12th in points allowed (20.9 ppg), fourth in both total yards allowed (307.4 ypg) and against the pass (196.9 ypg) and 14th against the run (110.4 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Fleeting hopes. The Titans have taken a sizable step back from their playoff standing of a week ago, but they're still a game out of the last Wild Card spot with two to play. That alone ought to make sure the intensity level doesn't suffer against a second straight subpar opponent.
Ground warriors. Tennessee's Johnson and Jacksonville's Jones-Drew are two of the game's premier backs, though they don't always get a chance on the biggest stages. The pair has 2,264 combined rushing yards this season and have become rivals through the series of two annual meetings. Whichever team better contains the standout runner on the other side increases its chances at getting a victory.
Coaching up. Tucker was a dud in his first game as interim head coach and a stud in his second, then unfortunately returned to dud status in outing No. 3. The odds are against him anyway, but he'll need a strong finish to have any reasonable hope at retaining the sideline gig, which could enhance the Jaguars' motivation.
At 7-7 and coming off a loss to the league's last winless team, the Titans are hardly a safe bet against anyone. That said, they're at home and playing for their playoff lives. And when push comes to shove, they do have a talent advantage at most positions. It may not be pretty, but expect either Hasselbeck or Locker and Johnson to make at least one more big play than their visitors.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 21, Jaguars 13