NFL Preview - Tennessee (2-12) at Jacksonville (2-12)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There is no flex scheduling on Thursday nights, meaning the NFL Network's television vehicle will not exactly be going out with a bang this season.
You can look at 2014's final "Thursday Night Football" battle between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars in two ways, a tilt to decide who will end up in the AFC South cellar or an opportunity to garner a better pick in the '15 NFL Draft.
The Titans and Jags will square off having mustered only two wins apiece with one of Tennessee's coming when it edged Jacksonville, 16-14, back in Music City on Oct. 12.
Since that game, the teams have combined to lose 14 of 16 contests with the Titans dropping eight straight in Ken Whisenhunt's first season at the helm, and the Jaguars losing six of eight behind rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
Each team suffered its latest setback in Week 15 as Tennessee fell to the lowly New York Jets, 16-11, and Jacksonville came up short in Baltimore, 20-12.
The Jets' Chris Ivory scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:09 remaining in the fourth quarter to lift New York to its triumph in Nashville although the Titans made it interesting and nearly pulled off another Music City Miracle on the game's last play, lateraling numerous times before Delanie Walker came up short at the Jets' 9-yard line.
Jake Locker made his first start for the Titans since Week 5 and likely his last with the organization as he left the game late in the second quarter with a dislocated left shoulder.
The injury-prone Locker, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 draft, started because rookie Zach Mettenberger re-injured his right shoulder the week prior. He was subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve this week and is unlikely to return to the Titans next season.
"To me, he's a true pro," Whisenhunt said. "He's a great teammate, works hard and you obviously feel badly for Jake just from the standpoint of having to have surgery and his season being over."
Charlie Whitehurst replaced Locker against the Jets and was 10-of-24 for 203 yards in his first action since Week 7. The veteran will start again this week and be backed up by the recently signed Jordan Palmer.
"I haven't played as well as I wanted to this year. There's a few plays I left out there," Whitehurst said. "But every time I go out there, there's a few personal things that come out of it -- It's been fun to do it and kind of see what you're made of."
Tennessee's current eight-game skid is the franchise's longest since the 1994 Houston Oilers dropped 11 straight.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, fell in the Charm City when the Ravens' Joe Flacco threw for 221 yards with a touchdown and the Baltimore defense kept the Jaguars out of the end zone.
Josh Scobee kicked four field goals to account for the Jags' entire offensive output.
Bortles threw for 210 yards with an interception for the Jaguars. He was, however, also sacked eight times by a swarming Baltimore defense that limited Jacksonville to 248 total yards.
"There's gonna be talk about how 'Hey Jacksonville played extremely hard, very physical, came into our house and did some really good things, special teams wise two phases did really good' but I told them we're not into moral victories," Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said. "We're into victories. We're into victories. That's what we're after."
After the beating Bortles was diagnosed with a mid-foot sprain and has been in a walking boot but the Jags are hopeful he will play on Thursday and the rookie was back at practice on a limited basis by Tuesday.
"As far as I know, it's going to be Blake," Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said Tuesday. "We're going to obviously see how he practices."
"He did better," Bradley added on Tuesday. "You could see him improve."
The Titans lead their all-time series with the Jags by a 22-17 margin, including the win earlier this season when Jackie Battle rushed for a TD and kicker Ryan Succop booted three field goals.
Bortles threw for a career-high 336 yards and a touchdown in the setback but Tennessee sacked him six times and blocked a potential game-winning 55-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
'Tis the time of year when certain teams give up and the Titans seem to be at the top of that list, failing to succeed no matter who is under center, Mettenberger, Locker or Whitehurst.
"The (injury) circumstances aren't great, but when something like that does happen, it does give you a chance," Whitehurst said. "There's no substitute for it. You get to play. You get to play in the NFL."
The lack of a consistent competent option at the game's most important position has hindered Tennessee all season and the Titans head into the final two games with the NFL's 29th ranked offense, mustering just 307.9 yards per game and scoring less than 14 points per game during their current skid. The Jags are even worse, however, 31st in a 32-team league while averaging under 300 ypg at 293.8.
On paper that should make things easier for the respective defensive units but they haven't exactly set the world on fire either as the Jags' stop unit is ranked 28th, surrendering 372.6 ypg, and the Titans are actually a tick below at 29, allowing six yards more.
The run game has been particularly daunting for Tennessee. The Titans can't run it, amassing under 65 yards per game over the last 2 1/2 months, and they can't stop opponents from running it, surrendering a league-worst 139.6 ypg.
Jacksonville has a little more hope because Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, has shown signs, albeit only for brief periods. Bortles has thrown 10 touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions and has the league's second-worst passer rating at 70.6 but he's also under significant duress more often than not, being sacked an NFL-high 41 times since he's taken over from Chad Henne.
The impressive skill set is visible, though, and Bortles has embraced a leadership role.
"A lot of (the sacks) are on me," Bortles said. "Some are on the offensive line. It's on the whole offense. It's football, so you better be used to getting hit."
Bortles also seems aware that he needs to speed up his decision making.
"In college, you can run around and do more stuff, but in the NFL guys are a lot faster and stronger," the Central Florida product said. "So it's a little more difficult. You want to be able to get rid of the ball and live another down, not lose yards on third down and create longer field-goal situation. Those are definitely things I'm working on."
Whitehurst has actually been Tennessee's most effective QB this season, compiling an 89.1 passer rating and going 1-2 as a starter with the lone triumph being against the Jags in the October game when he completed 17-of-28 passes for 233 yards.
"I feel good about Charlie and what he's done," Whisenhunt said. "He started against Jacksonville the last time and played a pretty good game. He's been a great support in the room, and we have confidence in him."
Neither team looks primed to much offensively but the Jags seem like the lesser of two evils here mainly because the Titans have been an abject disaster on the road, losing six straight and being outscored by an average of 34 to 16 in those games.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Jaguars 16, Titans 13
12/17 11:53:47 ET