JACKSONVILLE – Let the critical part of the schedule begin… divisional play is here.
Yes, the Jacksonville Jaguars have checked off the first two landmarks of the 2018 schedule: a tough Week 1 road game in New York… Win, 20-15. Check. A stirring Week 2 home game against the perennial AFC powerhouse Patriots… Win, 31-20. Check.
A great start, and in fact, a perfect start in terms of results. Sure, there are corrections to be made in some areas and others that are performing well in the early season, but now this is the part of the schedule where winning results become vital.
There are a few ways for a team to approach the schedule each year. Win three games in each quarter of the season, and you'll have 12 wins. Win your eight home games and half the road games and that gets to 12 wins as well.
The fastest way to the playoffs, though, is to dominate and win the division. If your team is good enough to beat the three teams they play twice a year, then in theory it should be good enough to win others outside of the division to get into playoff contention.
Winning the AFC South is what the Jaguars are built around. You see the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts twice a year. Those teams' logos are ingrained in the Jaguars players' minds walking around TIAA Bank Field. In fact, in the hallway outside of the Jaguars locker room – the main hallway between the locker room and the lunchroom, the main lobby, the parking lot, the coaches' offices pretty much anywhere – one sign shows the dates and results of the division games only – no others.
That sign at the end of last season showed a 4-2 record in the AFC South. The two losses… to the Titans, who finished with a 5-1 record in the division. It was the Jaguars' 10-6 overall record that propelled them to the division title, finishing one game better than the Titans for the first AFC South title in franchise history. The other two division titles came in the old AFC Central in the 1990s.
So yes, we use the "Remember the Titans" movie title as the title for this matchup. Cheesy, maybe… the movie was released 18 years ago, not long after those old division championships – and the Titans' three wins over the Jags in the 1999 season/postseason. Applicable now? Absolutely.
Yes, it is a new year. Yes, the teams are different from a year ago. Yes, last season is last season and we are on to 2018 (we went over this last week leading into the Patriots game). That said, it would be nice to not only start off on the right foot this season in the AFC South but to bring an end a two-game skid against a hated division rival.
Today the Tennessee Titans (1-1) face the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-0) at 1:00 p.m. at TIAA Bank Field in Week 3. Remember the Titans, or at least what they did to the Jaguars a season ago. Make it loud, make it rowdy, make it the toughest road environment in the NFL – especially for the division rivals.
Let the critical games begin… the first of six divisional games, that is.
Jaguars Players to Watch
Here are J.P. Shadrick's key players to watch in today's game against the Tennessee Titans:
· #12 WR Dede Westbrook: Last week Westbrook was targeted by Blake Bortles five times and he reeled in five catches for 83 yards, including a game-sealing 61-yard touchdown. The second-year receiver is making great progress, especially considering he missed the first part of his rookie season in 2017 due to injury. His catch-and-run ability showed on the touchdown last week and should continue throughout the 2018 season.
· #27 RB Leonard Fournette: After leaving the Week 1 game against the Giants with a hamstring injury, Fournette missed last week's game against the Patriots. If he is back, will the Jaguars rely on him and the running game to move the ball, or will they mix in the run (or threat of the run) to keep the Titans honest with Bortles slinging it around the yard like last week?
· #36 S Ronnie Harrison: With strong-side linebacker Leon Jacobs inactive last week, the rookie safety Harrison played 52 percent of the defensive snaps and recorded seven tackles in the win over the Patriots. He held his own and made several nice plays and tackles near the line of scrimmage, and – like he did at Alabama – showed he can hit hard. There is still plenty of room to grow. Is Jacobs back? Does Harrison continue to get time? Performances like last week will force defensive coordinator Todd Wash to keep Harrison on the field.
· #72 LT Josh Wells: Starter Cam Robinson left last week's game with a knee injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Wells stepped in and performed well last week, part of an offensive line that kept Bortles clean – no sacks. Can Wells, who has some starting experience, step up and fill the role the rest of the way?
· #91 DE Yannick Ngakoue: Ngakoue got an early hit on Tom Brady last week and logged a few pressures on Eli Manning in Week 1. That said, Ngakoue has yet to record his first sack in 2018. Whether it is starter Marcus Mariota or backup Blaine Gabbert under center today, it is time for Ngakoue to get home. Once it starts, sacks will come in bunches for him. Ngakoue had a fumble return for a touchdown late in the Jaguars' loss to the Titans in Nashville last season.
· #99 Marcell Dareus: Titans running back Derrick Henry went for 92 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown in the Week 2 game against the Jaguars last season. That was before Dareus was with the team. In the Week 17 matchup in Nashville, Henry logged 51 yards on 28 carries. Of course there are more factors to defending the Titans running game, but a stout middle of the defensive front is a good place to start – this is the kind of game that Dareus was traded for last season.