JACKSONVILLE – This one is big in multiple ways.
The Jaguars on Sunday will play the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., – a game that matters to the Jaguars for more reasons than just a chance to put the most-one-sided loss of the season in the rearview.
It's a chance to keep postseason hopes alive, however, faint those hopes may be.
It's a chance for a second victory in three weeks against an AFC division leader.
Mostly, it's a chance to show that they can compete on the road with the best team in their division – and while winning in Nashville has long proved elusive for the Jaguars, it's something they must eventually do if they are to ascend to the top of the AFC South.
To win, the Jaguars must play better defense than they have in recent weeks – and they must play better overall than what they did in what quarterback Trevor Lawrence called an "embarrassing" loss to the Detroit Lions last week. Head Coach Doug Pederson called the 40-14 loss unacceptable, and both were right.
The Jaguars don't believe they're the team that lost to the Lions. They believe they're the team that won two of three entering that game, including a victory over AFC North-leading Baltimore two weeks ago, and they believe they're a team on the rise.
They can get a lot more people to agree with them by winning Sunday.
Here are 10 things they must do to do that:
- Toe the line. Lawrence missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a toe injury sustained against the Lions. He practiced Friday and the guess here is he will play. If he does, how he plays while dealing with a significant injury for the first time in his NFL career will be a key to the game. The way the Jaguars' defense is playing, they probably can't win a low-scoring game. They need points and they need Lawrence to play well to get a lot of them.
- Stop Derrick Henry … Remember him? Jaguars fans do. Boy, do they.
- … or at least slow Henry down. The Jaguars may not stop the Titans running back, but they must keep him from dominating the game. Henry's not quite as dominant as when he led the NFL in rushing in 2019 and 2020, but he's still really productive – and he's still the focus of the Titans' offense. And he's still capable of controlling a game's tempo.
- Man up. Henry is a big, physical presence who beats you with power and persistence. The Titans' offensive and defensive line play that way, too. If you want to beat the Titans, you must be better than them in this area.
- Cover. This should be a more achievable task than the Jaguars faced last week when Lions wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and DJ Chark Jr. hurt them. The Titans traded wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles and still haven't found a playmaker to replace him. The way the Jaguars' secondary has covered this season, there's no such thing as an easy game.
- Catch the ball. Head Coach Doug Pederson spoke this week of refocusing on fundamentals. Catching the ball is as basic as it gets, but drops hurt offensively in a big way in Detroit. There's no reason the Jaguars shouldn't improve here. While the losses hurt last week, drops haven't been a season-long trend.
- Pressure Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This will get an eye roll from many Jaguars observers because significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been far too elusive in recent weeks. We'll keep saying it until happens. And it remains a key whether the Jaguars are good at it or not.
- Protect the quarterback. This would be a must in normal circumstances, but if Lawrence plays on an injured foot, protecting him is paramount for a team that has allowed 11 sacks in the last three games.
- Get the run going. The Jaguars' offense ran effectively for much of the season. Not so much in the last three games. Some of that was a foot injury sustained by running back Travis Etienne Jr. two weeks ago against Baltimore. Some of it was teams getting leads and forcing the Jaguars away from the run. Some of it was teams scheming to take away the run. Whatever the reason, the Jaguars need Etienne's explosiveness in the offense.
- Be ready. Jaguars players agreed they came out "flat" against Detroit. You don't win many games playing that way – darned sure not in Nashville.