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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (6-5) at Tennessee (5-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's been a while since he's been an elite player in either his conference or his league. But don't be surprised if Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins gets a hero's welcome should he take the field on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The former Penn State star, who led Carolina to an NFC title game in the mid-1990's and the New York Giants to a Super Bowl a half-decade later, likely looks like a cross between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to a rapidly-deflating Titans fan base these days.
With Vince Young on the shelf for the season -- and possibly longer -- after a thumb injury followed by an impromptu dust-up with head coach Jeff Fisher following a Week 11 loss to Washington, and rookie Rusty Smith looking every bit like a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic in his first and only professional start, the time is now for Collins as a savior.
Tennessee has dropped four straight since a 5-2 start, including a 20-0 blanking by the defensively-challenged Houston Texans last Sunday in which Jacksonville native Smith was 17-of-31 for just 138 yards.
Collins has missed a pair of games due to a strained calf muscle, though he did back Smith up last week, and according to Fisher, could have played if the situation dictated. He practiced Wednesday for the first time since suffering the injury on Nov, 14.
"I've come a long way since [the injury] happened," Collins said. "I'm feeling better. I'm feeling as good now as I have since it happened. I'm just trying to get my strength back and get better with every day that passes."
Fisher said Collins' return to practice gave the Titans some extra energy.
"It's already been a significant boost for [the players], knowing that he has a good chance to play," he said. "Obviously we can do a little bit more, game- plan wise. Guys are excited."
For the Jaguars, the excitement is tinged with reality.
Jacksonville picked up a few fortunate bounces, most notably a last-second Hail Mary touchdown against the Texans back in Week 10, in winning three straight games and ascending to first place in the AFC South, but the run at least briefly ended with last Sunday's 24-20 loss to the New York Giants that kept the Jaguars tied with Indianapolis atop the division.
Jacksonville and the Colts are 6-5. Behind them, the Titans and Houston are 5-6. The Jaguars visit both Indianapolis and Houston in the season's final four weeks, sandwiched around home games with Oakland and Washington.
"We want to be like we were in 2005 and 2007, when we were able to earn our way into the postseason," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. "I think you look back at '05 and '07. We played good football and won in December. That's about where it is right now. We're sitting here looking at having the very opportunity to do that."
The Jaguars will be buoyed by the expected return of left tackle Eugene Monroe from injury. The 2009 first-round pick suffered a concussion in a win over Cleveland two weeks ago and did not play against the Giants.
Tennessee leads the overall regular-season series with the Jaguars, 18-13, and posted a 30-3 Monday night rout when these divisional foes met in Jacksonville back in Week 6. The Jags were also handed a 30-13 loss by the then-winless Titans in Nashville during Week 8 of last season and haven't prevailed as the visitor in this set since a 28-13 verdict during the 2007 campaign. Tennessee last produced a season sweep of Jacksonville in 2008, a year in which the Jaguars finished 5-11.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have met once in the playoffs, with Tennessee scoring a 33-14 road victory in the 1999 AFC Championship.
Fisher is 19-13 all-time versus Jacksonville, including the aforementioned playoff win. Del Rio is 6-9 against both Fisher and the Titans over his career.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
The overall record has been better than the sum of the parts for the Jaguars, who are just 19th in the league with an average of 21.8 points per week and 18th with 334.9 total yards per game. The passing game has generated only 193.1 yards per week to place 29th in the NFL, but the running game has been the great equalizer, having gone for a whopping average of 141.8 yards per week to place fourth among 32 teams. The Titans have been average in stopping opposing backs, yielding 111.2 yards per game to place 17th. Their pass defense (249.5 ypg) is just 26th overall, leaving the total yards allowed number at 360.7 per game, 24th in the league. Still, the team's average of 19.8 points allowed per week is eighth-best.
Though the team numbers aren't particularly strong, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard has had a recent resurgence and the team is 6-0 when he has at least two touchdown passes in a game this season. He's four touchdowns short of passing Mark Brunell's franchise record of 20 scoring strikes that was set in 1998 and equaled in 2000. In the backfield, fireplug Maurice Jones-Drew seeks a fifth straight game with 100 yards and comes in nine yards short of reaching 1,000 for the second straight year. Only Fred Taylor has previously done that in Jacksonville history. Jones-Drew has averaged 97.3 yards in four career games against the Titans. Elsewhere, running back Rashad Jennings had his first rushing touchdown of the season last week and wideout Mike Thomas tied a career-best with eight catches in his last game against Tennessee. Lastly, tight end Marcedes Lewis is averaging 15.4 yards per catch in his last four matchups with the Titans.
Tennessee had three interceptions in its Week 6 rout of the Jaguars, while end Jason Babin aims for a third straight game with at least one sack.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Running the ball has also been the ticket for Tennessee, which grinds out 117.6 yards per week to place 11th in the league in that category. The team's average of 23.4 points per week is 13th overall, but the passing game's 180.5 yards per game is 31st and the total yardage number of 298.1 per week is only good for 30th. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been porous across the board, allowing 261.1 passing yards and 114.3 rushing yards a game to rank 28th and 20th in those categories, respectively. The total yardage of 375.4 per game is 25th of 32 teams, while the per-week point total allowed of 26.7 is 28th.
The veteran Collins enters his expected start needing three touchdown passes to reach 200 for his career. Titans bread-and-butter running back Chris Johnson averages 115.8 rushing yards per game against the Jaguars and aims for a third consecutive contest with 100-plus against Jacksonville. He needs just 27 yards to reach 1,000 for the third consecutive season and averages 7.1 yards per carry at home against AFC South foes over his career (99 carries, 703 yards). He's also looking for a sixth straight December/January game with 100 yards or more. Tennessee wideout Randy Moss (952 catches) passed Andre Reed (951) for the eighth-most receptions in NFL history in last week's loss and had three touchdown receptions in his last game against the Jaguars, which took place in 2009 while with New England. He has five touchdown catches in four career games against them. Also, wide receiver Nate Washington has four scoring receptions in his past five meetings with Jacksonville. In the return game, Titans rookie Marc Mariani, a seventh-round pick in April's draft, leads the NFL with a 16.6-yard average on punt runbacks.
For Jacksonville, linebacker Daryl Smith leads the team with 61 tackles, while cornerback Rashean Mathis has six interceptions in his career against Tennessee, the most he's recorded against any NFL opponent.
Jones-Drew is a legitimate starting option at running back and Thomas a credible one at wide receiver for those with not-so-deep corps at that position. Lewis is a yardage compiler if not a touchdown scorer at tight end, while Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee has made 89.5 percent of few field-goal opportunities. The Jacksonville defense is viable if Rusty Smith gets the start for Tennessee. For the Titans, Johnson's value shoots up in the presence of Collins and ticks downward if Smith stays on. Tight end Bo Scaife becomes a safety net for Smith if he plays and kicker Rob Bironas has been solid all season. On defense, Tennessee is a strong option against a team it toyed with earlier in the season.
Make no mistake, the health of Collins will be a large determining factor for a Tennessee team that's lost four straight to plummet from division penthouse to outhouse. Fortunately for the Titans, the two spots are but a single game apart. The Jags, meanwhile, had their three-game win streak cut short by the Giants and will try to regain the mojo. In the end, look for Collins to play and give the nod to the home team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 17, Jaguars 14
12/02 15:02:32 ET