A meeting of the AFC South's two playoff qualifiers from last season takes on a much different appearance this time around. It's safe to assume the schedule makers didn't think a Week 14 contest between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans would only have an impact on the Wild Card race and, yet, here we are.
Jacksonville has experienced a season-long worst-case scenario, losing promising running back Leonard Fournette for a considerable stretch of the season, as well as starting left tackle Cam Robinson, among others. The result has been an inept offense and too much of the burden falling on a defense that hasn't been the same havoc-wreaking group it was in 2017.
It has produced a benching of Blake Bortles and a 4-8 mark with four weeks left to play. The Jaguars aren't yet eliminated from playoff contention, but the chances are slim. At best, they can finish with a .500 winning percentage. At worst, they can find themselves in the top five of the 2019 draft.
But intrigue remains in this game.
On the other sideline will be the Tennessee Titans, an inconsistent bunch under first-year head coach Mike Vrabel. The Titans, at 6-6, are firmly in the race for the Wild Card but haven't played well enough to solidify their status as a true contender. They can do a lot for their chances by defeating the Jaguars and history is on their side. But a short week and a formidable Jaguars defense stands in their path. Here are four things to watch for in Week 14's edition of Thursday Night Football (airing on NFL Network, FOX and Amazon Prime Video).
1. Can Tennessee complete the sweep?
Way back in another time that feels as if it were ages ago, the Titans scored an ugly but seemingly important win over the Jaguars in Week 3. Tennessee grounded out a victory despite failing to reach the end zone by limiting almost everything Jacksonville tried to do, keeping the Fournette-less Jaguars under 100 yards rushing. Tennessee played stifling defense, forcing a battle of attrition it ultimately won, thanks to the leg of Ryan Succop, who made three of four field goal attempts to secure the 9-6 win.
But in that same game, Marcus Mariota completed just 12 of 18 passes for 100 yards. His greatest contribution came on the ground, when he rushed seven times for 51 yards as the maestro of a less-than-impressive offense that did just enough to win. A similar formula seems set up for success, seeing as the Jaguars just won their last game 6-0, but it also speaks to a defense that could be getting better as the season enters its final four weeks. That could spell trouble for a Titans team that needed a furious comeback to take down the lowly Jets in Week 13.
2. The Cody Kessler Jaguars
Bortles has been relegated to the bench, turning over the keys to Kessler, a quarterback who spent his first seasons in the quarterback carousel in Cleveland. His ceiling isn't high and the Jaguars aren't exactly a deep-threat offense with him at the helm. But they are one that can move the ball efficiently with minimal error, making them a formidable foe, especially on a short week against a divisional opponent. The true difference-maker, though, could be Fournette, who's returning from suspension and should be expected to carry the bulk of the offensive responsibility. With the Titans ranking fifth in the league against the pass and all of the major statistical categories (points per game, total yards per game, passing yards per game, red zone percentage) in their favor, it's not so much a question of whether the Jaguars can win with Kessler, but if they can run the ball well enough to win.
3. Which Titans team shows up?
Tennessee has very much been a team with two distinct personalities that produce vastly different results. On one hand, there's the Titans team that shut down Tom Brady and put up 34 points on the Patriots in a total team victory. And then, there's the Titans team that gives up 11 sacks (with a lot of blame due for Mariota, who held the ball too long too often) and limps to a 21-0 loss to Baltimore. Lately they've been the latter, though not as bad, mustering just 10 points in a loss to the Colts and 17 in a loss to the Texans in consecutive weeks. But they did enough to overcome a deficit against the Jets in Week 13. Which team shows up for this game, in prime time? They're at home, where they're 10-3 since the start of 2017, the sixth-best mark in the league, and they're 7-2 against Jacksonville at home since 2009. But eight of the last 11 games have been decided by eight points or less, making for an entertaining finish, if nothing more.
4. Can the Jaguars slightly spoil another division rival's chances?
Jacksonville entered Week 13 looking like a sure loss, considering Indianapolis' recent hot streak and the Jaguars' mounting struggles. They then promptly defeated the Colts by shutting them out and cobbling together six points. Controversial finish to last week's game aside, the Jaguars did what many expected them to do for the entire season: play suffocating defense and ride it to a win. Can they do it again? History says no, as the team has never shut out consecutive opponents in its history, and hasn't shut out two opponents in one season since 2006. But these Jaguars still have something -- that they have a good defense (currently tied for sixth in unit grade, per Pro Football Focus) -- to prove, even with their postseason aspirations all but extinguished. The key: pressuring Mariota, who has a tendency to crumble amid it when frequent. They can ride rushers Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, with the former being one of four players in the NFL with 50 tackles and seven-plus sacks, and the latter tied for second in the NFL in QB hits with 25, trailing only Aaron Donald.