It's crunch time for the Jaguars. Their run to the playoffs begins this week with the first of three consecutive road games, a formidable task for any team, even against three teams with a combined record of 7-20. It's an especially difficult assignment for the Jaguars because this road stretch begins with a game against their number one rival, the Tennessee Titans.
They are the team that has always seemed to spoil the Jaguars' season. The Titans did it to the Jaguars in 1999, the last time the Jaguars made it to the playoffs, and the Titans did it to the Jags again last year, which happened to be the first time since '99 the Jags were in playoff contention.
The circumstances are nearly identical for this week's meeting. The Jaguars are 6-3, as they were a year ago when they were upset at home by the 3-6 Titans. This year, the Titans are 2-7 and the game will be played in Nashville at the Coliseum, where the Jaguars scored their first-ever win last season.
"A team that has had success against this organization in the past," is how Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio described the Titans to reporters at Wednesday's press conference.
Will that trend continue? Will the Jaguars continue to be dogged by a team that loves to torture the Jaguars?
"I have the same approach for all games. I just want to be as prepared as possible and get the team prepared to play its best," Del Rio said.
These are not your father's Titans, so to speak. The power teams of the franchise's 1999-2003 run are gone. These are the Titans of a rebuilding era. They have $31 million in salary cap "dead money," the highest in the league. They have a starting lineup that includes four rookies. The Titans are clearly looking to better days ahead and they could take a major step in that direction this Sunday by beating the Jaguars.
"That team record-wise is nowhere near the Bengals, but I saw the game tape and for three quarters they had control of that football game," Del Rio said.
"You look at the statistics and you look at them on film and they don't match up," quarterback Byron Leftwich said of the Titans.
Clearly, the Jaguars have respect for their time-honored tormentors. The past isn't so distant that it doesn't pertain to the current group of Jaguars players. The Titans' 18-15 win in Jacksonville on Nov. 21 of last year cost the Jaguars a playoff berth.
"As a team, I feel we're headed in the right direction to make the playoffs in this playoff run," Leftwich said. "Every team that wants to make the playoffs needs to be playing its best football at this time of the year. Are we playing our best football? No. Are we headed in that direction? Yes."
The expectation is that even in a year in which the Jaguars are four games better than the Titans, the Jaguars will probably have to play their best football to win in Nashville. That's the Jaguars' mindset.
Meanwhile, Del Rio gave reporters a preview of the injury report the team will release following Wednesday afternoon's practice. "The biggest question will probably be Fred (Taylor)," Del Rio said, referring to his star running back's nagging ankle sprain.
Del Rio said Taylor wouldn't practice on Wednesday. Ernest Wilford, however, was expected to practice.