By Adesina O. Koiki
Can you tell a football team that has played with a collective chip on its shoulder since the first day of training camp to take a little bit of the edge off as the finish line, at least in the regular season, has arrived?
That’s the unique situation the Jacksonville Jaguars find themselves in approaching Sunday’s season finale against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, their final game before the team hosts its first playoff game since 2000 the following week. Not only did the Jaguars clinch the AFC South division title even before it took the field last Sunday in Santa Clara against the San Francisco 49ers, but wins by the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh last week locked in Jacksonville as the No. 3 seed when the NFL Playoffs start – no matter the result in Nashville and no matter the results elsewhere around the league.
To the credit of Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone, he made sure to silence any doubts about what his team’s mentality is going to be heading into Sunday.
“Make no mistake about it so there’s not a lot of talk about it during the week: We’re going to play to win and we’re going to do everything possible to win this game, period,” Marrone said during a conference call earlier in the week. “I’m not even thinking about what happens beyond that. That’s the way we’re going to go about our business this week.”
Technically, Jacksonville has absolutely nothing at stake on Sunday. Also, the injury list for the Jaguars continues to grow, with wide receiver Jaelen Strong, promoted off the practice squad to cover for the already-injured Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, tore his ACL in last week’s game and has been ruled out for the season. Along with the banged-up receiving corps, running back Leonard Fournette, who is just 29 yards away from rushing for 1,000 yards in his rookie season, has been dealing with injuries to his ankle and quadriceps throughout the month of December.
Should the Jaguars play their starters for the majority of the game on Sunday, or give them a rest? Play them, and here are some reasons why.
First, Jacksonville would want to forget their performance last Sunday, a 44-33 loss to the 49ers, in which quarterback Blake Bortles, who had been playing excellent over the past three weeks, threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter as the Jaguars found themselves in a 16-0 hole. The game was also an uncharacteristic showing by the normally stout Jaguars defense, and those frustrations boiled over early as cameras caught defensive tackle Malik Jackson and cornerback Aaron Colvin in a heated exchange on the sidelines after a 49ers scoring drive.
Another reason why Jacksonville might still have an edge in its final game is because of the revenge factor. Playing a division rival can be enough motivation to win, but the Jaguars were outclassed by the Titans 37-16 when the two teams met during Week 2 of the season in Jacksonville, as Tennessee built a 30-3 lead before Jacksonville made the score a little more respectable during the fourth quarter.
The final reason for Jacksonville to maintain its urgency for Sunday’s game is because of what’s in store the week after: a postseason game featuring the Jaguars for the first time since 2007. Normally, having positive momentum going into the playoffs is a good recipe to winning in the postseason, and losses in back-to-back games going into next week’s playoff game, which would be the case if the Jaguars lose to the Titans, will be the antithesis of positive momentum.
“When we went over [the playoff situation], I said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to bounce back, we’re going to work our [butts] off this week and we’re going to go out and win this game and win this quarter,’” Marrone said, referring to the Jaguars being 2-1 so far in the final four games of the season. “That was pretty much the conversation. There wasn’t any wavering from anyone about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to accomplish this week. We’re 100 percent all-in on winning this football game.”
The start time of the Jaguars-Titans game was moved from a 1 PM start to a 4:25 PM EST kickoff, to coincide with the games involving the Los Angeles Chargers (vs. Oakland) and Buffalo Bills (at Miami), the two teams immediately behind Tennessee for the final AFC playoff spot. Tennessee will clinch a playoff spot with a victory against Jacksonville, but a loss opens the door for the Chargers and/or Bills to pass the Titans in the standings.