JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jaguars are ready for prime time.
Riding their first four-game winning streak since the 2017 season, Jacksonville is in unfamiliar territory at this time of the year.
The Jaguars (8-8) host the rival Titans (7-9) on Saturday night at 8:15 in a showdown that will determine the AFC South champ. The league moved the game up from Sunday to spotlight one of the marquee games of Week 18. It will be televised nationally on ESPN and also broadcast on ABC.
The winner gets the division title and No. 4 seed in the playoffs. The loser likely stays home for the postseason.
“It is a playoff game. It’s a win and you’re in. So, it’s playoff atmosphere. Gosh, it’ll be fun to be in a full stadium, a loud stadium, a home crowd,” coach Doug Pederson said. “The guys will get jazzed up and we’ll have a lot of energy and that’s what you want. That’s what we’re trying to build here and that’s the culture we want. We want full stadiums every Sunday.”
The Jaguars could still back into a wildcard spot with a loss, but that would require a chain reaction of things going right for that to happen.
The easiest way to the playoffs is to win Saturday night.
“These games you shouldn’t have to check the pulse of anybody. They should be fired up and ready to go. Again, these are games you want to play in as a player, you want to coach in as a coach. It’s part of the culture that we’re trying to establish,” Pederson said.
“And, again, as we move forward, whether it’s the remainder of this season, into ‘23, next year and beyond, you want to be here at the end with an opportunity to play in the postseason.”
The Jaguars could have been distracted Sunday in what wasn’t a significantly important game on the surface. Had Jacksonville lost to the Texans, it could still win the AFC South title by beating Tennessee. Pederson said with that question floating around during Houston week, it was imperative that he and the staff drive home the point that it very much mattered.
“There were a lot of distractions around the football team last week,” Pederson said. “And my main focus was to keep them focused, right. Task at hand.”
Jacksonville wasn’t razor-sharp in the 31-3 win, but made it through unscathed on the injury front and immediately turned its attention to the Titans. Tennessee will enter Week 18 rested. The Titans played last Thursday night. Pederson said that he wanted a Sunday game due to the difference in rest time between the two teams, but was ready for the opportunity.
“We’re just excited to be here, to be in this type of game,” Pederson said. “I think it’s great for our players, great for our city to have it and host it here and obviously in Jacksonville this Saturday night.”
How much different will the Titans look than when Jacksonville faced them in Week 14? Quite a bit.
Running back Derrick Henry is still the main focal point of the Tennessee offense, but the Titans will start former Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs over rookie Malik Willis, coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. Regular starter Ryan Tannehill is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Jacksonville enters Week 18 in relatively good shape comparatively. Numerous starters got a break Sunday against Houston as Pederson began pulling them out in the third quarter. Trevor Lawrence got a little bit of a breather. Travis Etienne had a big game and didn’t play in the second half.
It’s a 180-degree shift from recent seasons when the Jaguars were playing for draft position throughout the second half of the year. And this season certainly appeared headed in that direction, too.
The Jaguars went winless in October, a forgettable stretch that torpedoed the team’s fast start. Jacksonville went from 2-1 to 2-6 after dropping five straight games that month.
“That stretch really kind of prepared us, I think, for where we’re at,” Pederson said. “You kind of build a callous around yourself. You learn to rely on each other and trust each other and play hard for the man next to you each week.”
Since that period, the Jaguars have won six of eight games, including heavyweight battles against the Ravens, Titans and Cowboys. The Jaguars hadn’t won in Tennessee since 2013. They had lost 20 consecutive games against NFC teams before a pick-six in OT by Rayshawn Jenkins delivered a 40-34 win. And they beat the Ravens with a furious fourth-quarter rally and two-point conversion from Lawrence to Zay Jones.
And they have learned how to come back, too.
Jacksonville entered this season with a 1-112 record when trailing by 17 points or more, according to ESPN. They have won twice this year (Cowboys, Raiders) when facing deficits of that size.