‘We’re ready for it’: Jaguars pumped for AFC South title game after crushing Texans

Jacksonville rolls 31-3, will host Tennessee Saturday night for AFC South title

Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell (32) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a fumble recover during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith) (Eric Christian Smith, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Get ready, Jacksonville.

The Jaguars are headed back home with another win and their biggest regular season game in franchise history on the horizon.

The Jaguars ended a nine-game slide against the Texans with a 31-3 dismantling of the league’s worst team on Sunday. Travis Etienne turned in one big play after another and the defense put the clamps on Houston from open to close to set up the big one next week.

Jaguars and Titans.

At TIAA Bank Field.

Winner gets the AFC South title.

Giving that game even more of a stage, the NFL announced late Sunday night that it was moving that Week 18 showdown up to 8:15 on Saturday night.

“This is what you play for. This is what you coach for, you know? This is what you want for your football team. You want to be in the conversation, and you want to be playing for — for us the AFC South, and we’re playing a good football team,” coach Doug Pederson said of the Titans.

“Listen, we haven’t done anything yet. They’re still the champs until something happens. I felt like and really feel like our guys are in a good place. They’re in a good place mentally, physically. I don’t really have to worry too much about them getting excited for this one.”

Who could have projected Jacksonville to be that far along during the first season of the Pederson rebuild? It certainly didn’t look like that after a 2-6 start and an inability to finish games out.

The Jaguars found that rhythm and played their best football of the season down the stretch. That coincided with a Tennessee implosion during that same time.

“We knew we had to take care of business these prior weeks, but we had a feeling we’re going to put ourselves in position to where Week 18 is going to decide our playoff berth and where we head after that,” said quarterback Trevor Lawrence. “We’ve been expecting this, and we’re ready for it.”

That game has been circled on the calendar for the past month as Jacksonville (8-8) went on a blistering winning streak and the Titans (7-9) went into a freefall. Tennessee will lug in a six-game losing streak to Jacksonville.

To keep that momentum going, the Jaguars had to beat Houston for the first time since 2017. Pederson said that he doesn’t believe in resting players unless they’re injured, even with so much riding on the following game.

It was a far different team this time against Houston than it was in Week 5 when the Jaguars dominated the statistical game but lost 13-6.

Jacksonville wasn’t perfect against the Texans (2-13-1) but did what it sat out to do. The Jaguars avoided any significant injuries and kept its winning momentum going into their massive Week 18 showdown.

“There’s a time and a place obviously to rest guys,” Pederson said. “I just didn’t think this was the time or the place to do that.”

The winner of that game gets the AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. Jacksonville could still reach the playoffs as a wildcard with a loss to Tennessee, but it would need a chain reaction of scenarios for that to happen.

Lawrence played in to the third quarter and left after a 3-yard touchdown run by Snoop Conner that pushed the lead to 28-3. That number was a bit misleading from an offensive perspective.

That unit looked a bit listless.

Etienne was the big play threat against Houston. He had a career-long 62-yard touchdown run to put Jacksonville up 14-0 just two and a half minutes into the second quarter. He finished with 140 total yards on 12 touches. Lawrence was 17 of 21 passing for 152 yards and an interception before being replaced by CJ Beathard.

“It was a big win for us, obviously, with a lot of the distraction’s kind of around this week and knowing what’s in store now for next week. I thought we handled our business today. That was the plan to come in here, start fast, and control the game, and I thought we did that offensively,” Lawrence said. “A lot of stuff to clean up. Didn’t play our cleanest ball today, but the defense played great, and special teams was awesome, so kind of made up for it.”

The Jaguars are surging. The Texans are not.

In spite of their 19-14 win over the Titans last week that pushed Jacksonville to the top of the AFC South, Houston is in contention for the No. 1 overall draft pick with the Bears.

The Jaguars know that feeling. They’ve picked No. 1 the last two drafts, but not this year.

They’ve won four straight games for the first time since their final playoff season in 2017. And they have now won eight games in a season for just the second time in Shad Khan’s tenure as owner. The 2017 team won 10 games in the regular season and wound up playing for the AFC championship.

While the offense was a bit ho-hum, the defense was stout once again. One week after holding the sinking Jets to a field goal in a 19-3 win, Jacksonville battered Houston quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Davis Mills. The Jaguars held Houston to just 10 first downs and denied it four times on fourth.

Tyson Campbell had a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown early in the second quarter, the first score of his NFL career. That play made it 21-0. Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson both had sacks for the Jaguars.

Christian Kirk had two catches for 21 yards and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving for the first time in his career. Evan Engram’s lone catch moved him past Kyle Brady for the most receiving yardage by a Jacksonville tight end in franchise history. Brady had 729 in 2000. Engram is at 739.

“You know, it should be electric. We’re playing for the AFC South, and we need all our fans that can get there to get there. It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Pederson said of Week 18. “Our guys will feed off of that energy, and it will be fun. It will be a fun one to coach and play in.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.