JACKSONVILLE – The stakes are clear and high. Again.
The Jaguars, one season after clinching their first AFC South title in five seasons with a Week 18 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Jacksonville, on Sunday play the Titans again in Week 18.
This year’s game is in Nashville, but the Jaguars again can win the division by beating the Titans. The difference this year? While the Titans had a chance to win the South by winning in Week 18 last season, they are 5-11 and have been eliminated from the postseason.
The Jaguars (9-7), despite losing four of their last five games, have multiple ways into the postseason. But while they remain in contention for a wild-card berth, their best way in is to win Sunday – and Head Coach Doug Pederson this week emphasized that the division title is the sole focus.
The Jaguars can't win the South if they lose Sunday.
"There’s only one that matters right now for us," Pederson said. "That's all I need to tell the team. There's nothing other than trying to win this game on Sunday."
The only way the Jaguars can make the postseason with a loss Sunday is if the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Baltimore Ravens Saturday and the Denver Broncos lose or tie against the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday. Those things could happen, but the Ravens have clinched the No. 1 seed and neither the Broncos nor Raiders can make the postseason.
It's best not to depend on the outcomes of late-season games played in those circumstances.
The Jaguars can win a second consecutive division title for the second time in franchise history with a victory Sunday. They can reach double-digit victories for the seventh time in franchise history with a victory Sunday. Mostly, they can assure themselves a ninth postseason appearance by winning Sunday.
Here are 10 things they must do to do those things:
- Protect the ball. This was key for the Jaguars in a victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday and it will be key again Sunday. The Jaguars committed no turnovers against the Panthers after committing 10 in the previous three games. The closest the Jaguars have come to no turnovers in back-to-back games was when they committed one in November victories over Tennessee and Houston. That also was their last winning streak. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions in two of his last three starts before missing the Carolina game with a shoulder injury. If he plays Sunday, he must reduce the giveaways.
- Run. The Jaguars are 7-1 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. Their 155 rushing yards against Carolina was their second-highest total of the season. If they approach that Sunday, they should win.
- Get ETN in the end zone. This ties in with No. 2, but it's important. Running back Travis Etienne Jr. has scored two touchdowns in four games this season. The Jaguars are 4-0 in those games.
- Pressure the quarterback. The Titans have struggled much of the year protecting their quarterback. Jaguars outside linebackers Josh Allen and Travon Walker have combined for 25.5 sacks, the most by any tandem in the NFL this season. Whoever quarterbacks the Titans, Ryan Tannehill or Will Levis, the Jaguars must exploit this.
- Get a lead. The Jaguars are 9-0 when leading at the half this season. They are 0-7 when trailing at the half. They were a remarkable comeback team last season. This season, they're not.
- Stop the run. The Jaguars were one of the NFL's best teams against the run for the first three months of the season and they struggled in that area at times in a 1-4 December. When this team stops the run, it feels like a good team. When it doesn't, it doesn't.
- Stop Henry. Titans running back Derrick Henry no longer is the NFL's best running back. He's also struggling along with the Titans' offense lately. But he's still a 1,000-yard rusher and you still need to stop the Titans' running game to beat them.
- Convert field goals. Kicker Brandon McManus missed four of five field-goal attempts before converting all four against Carolina. With the Jaguars' offense struggling at times in the last month, they can't let scoring opportunities pass with momentum-killing misses.
- Hit two explosives. The Jaguars' offense has struggled to run this season and it has been sporadic on third down and in the red zone. The way to score when that's happening? Hit big plays. The Jaguars pushed their way to a 9-0 lead against the Panthers last week before Etienne's 62-yard touchdown run. That was the Jaguars' fourth play of more than 50 yards this season. They may need a few more like that to get into – and advance in – the postseason.
- Win and get in. History is on the line. Find a way.