AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
If the Texans win, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens, Houston gets a playoff berth. That leaves the Jacksonville Jaguars in the role of spoilers.
In their first meeting, the Texans struggled early and Jacksonville went into halftime with a lead. Houston took over in the second half and came away with an important win. The Texans were swept last season by the Jaguars, but this year, Houston is going for the season sweep. A win here would give Houston a 4-2 division record.
They are facing a Jaguars team that earned its third victory of the season last week and enters Sunday's contest with 10 days' rest.
ESPN NFL Nation Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco discuss.
Ganguli: Mike, the Jaguars didn't have much success against J.J. Watt last time these teams met. Any reason to think that will change this time?
DiRocco: Watt did get three sacks, but one came when he was intentionally unblocked on a bootleg (not sure why you’d choose to do that) and another came when he tapped quarterback Blake Bortles after he slipped on a sprint out to this right. He beat right tackle Sam Young for another sack. Watt also had another tackle for loss and drew a holding penalty that stalled a fourth-quarter drive, but overall the Jaguars felt like they did a decent job of keeping Watt from doing too much damage. They’ll do the same thing on Sunday they did the last time: chip him with a back, keep a tight end in for extra help, and try to throw quick passes to somewhat neutralize his rush. It’s hard to really take him out of the game because he lines up everywhere on the defensive front. He spent a lot of time lined up over Young in the last meeting and the Jaguars are expecting to see him do that again. Watt will still make an impact because he is such a game-changer, but the Jaguars are hoping that’s limited to one or two plays and he doesn’t dominate the game as he has against other teams.
We talked about it before, but I need you to give me the definitive argument on why Watt should be the league's MVP.
Ganguli: Your answer to my previous question actually gives me a good starting point. Watt had three sacks, a batted pass, another tackle for loss, five quarterback hurries or hits and drew a holding penalty on a critical drive and his opponent felt like that was a job well done. That's quite a compliment. In watching the game, it was apparent Bortles was thinking about Watt's whereabouts, including on the sack that resulted from Bortles tripping as Watt sprinted after him. You can't say Watt's pursuit didn't affect Bortles there. This kind of thing happens a lot. I recall a Titans lineman a few years ago downplaying Watt's impact despite his two sacks against this particular lineman.
Regardless of what shows up on the stat sheet, Watt impacts every play in an opponent's game plan. He has the trust of his coaches, which means if he finds a spot from which he thinks he can wreak the most havoc, they'll sometimes let him park there and do it. It doesn't matter how someone gets to the quarterback, when he does it makes a difference. Defensively, here are Watt's numbers: 17.5 sacks, 72 tackles, 42 tackles for loss or no gain, nine batted passes, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and one interception. He leads the NFL in TFLs, batted passes and fumble recoveries. Only once since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 has a player accounted for a larger percentage of a team's sacks than Watt's 53 percent. He's played better this season than he did in 2012, when he won Defensive Player of the Year.
Now let's get to the historical significance of his offensive touches. Watt is the first player in NFL history to have three touchdown catches, a fumble return for a touchdown and a pick-six in the same season. Watt is the first defensive lineman since 1944 to have at least five touchdowns in a season. He's the first defensive player to have five touchdowns in a season since 1971. The Texans are 4-1 when Watt scores a touchdown. By the very nature of his position, he isn't going to be able to affect every game's outcome as much as a quarterback -- who touches the ball on every play -- does. But he shouldn't be penalized for that.
The vibe around Jacksonville has seemed exceptionally positive the past few years, though the Jags' record isn’t improving much. Do you think it will next year?
DiRocco: It should, but I thought it would be better this year than it was in 2013 (4-12), too. Logically, though, the offense should be significantly better with Bortles, right guard Brandon Linder, center Luke Bowanko, and receivers Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns in their second season. They all started at least seven games as rookies. Just because they’re a year older doesn’t mean they’ll be a lot better, but it would be unusual if they weren’t at least somewhat improved. The offense was what held this team back from being more competitive. With that unit theoretically better, the Jaguars should be able to win more games. Some other caveats: The offensive line as a whole has to improve (team-record and NFL-high 66 sacks allowed), the speed at linebacker needs to be upgraded, and the defense has to force more turnovers. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but if two of those areas improve, the Jaguars should be able to win more games in 2015.
Great performance by Case Keenum last week to keep the Texans alive in the playoff chase. Does that outing say more about Keenum or the rest of the offense?
Ganguli: He didn't make big mistakes, which allowed the Texans' defense to take over the game. Last season in his eight starts, Keenum led the league in yards lost per sack (10.58). That's an incredible figure. On Sunday, with the help of his protection and play-calling, Keenum didn't take a single sack. He made one horrible decision that ended in an interception, but recovered well and didn't turn over the ball again. It helped that his interception was not in Texans territory. Keenum's numbers weren't especially good, but that's OK for the Texans if he takes care of the ball and manages the game plan well, like he did on Sunday.
Keenum’s protection was great last week against a really strong front that blitzed him a lot. What can he expect from the Jaguars' defense?
DiRocco: The Jaguars likely won’t blitz him as much as Baltimore did, mainly because coach Gus Bradley’s defense doesn’t use a lot of blitzes. Bradley calls it rush and cover: get pressure with only four rushers and blanket the field with seven in coverage. But while Keenum won’t see as many extra rushers as he did last week, he will have to deal with pressure coming from inside and outside. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks leads the team with 8.5 sacks, an unusually high number for an interior lineman, and ends Chris Clemons (7.0) and Ryan Davis (6.5) are right behind him. Three other players have three sacks, including rookie end Chris Smith and second-year tackle Abry Jones. The Jaguars are fifth in the NFL with 42 sacks, which shows marked improvement from the past two seasons, when they had 51 combined.
Back to the quarterback. Is the Texans' quarterback of the future on the roster or IR?
Ganguli: He definitely could be on injured reserve. Ryan Mallett showed some very positive things in the game he played. He showed off his arm strength, his football intelligence and his leadership ability. He's played only one healthy game. When I talked to him last week, he wouldn't admit how much pain he was in during that second start, which he played with a torn pectoral muscle, but you can imagine. A one-game sample size isn't one with which you can draw sweeping conclusions, but it offered hope for his future. The X factor here is the free-agent market. Whether or not he's back next year will have more factors than just mutual affinity, which does exist between Mallett and the team right now.
Bortles had thrown 14 interceptions through the first 10 games before the bye week and Fisch said that number needed to be around six.
Barring a three-interception game in the season finale against Houston, Bortles is going to come in below that mark. He has thrown just three interceptions in the past five games and one came on a desperation fourth-down throw from his own 23-yard line in a 20-12 loss to Baltimore on Dec. 14.
Bortles threw at least two interceptions in five of the eight games in which he played before the bye week, including four that were returned for touchdowns. He threw three in the Jaguars’ 24-6 victory over Cleveland but the team was able to overcome that by forcing the Browns into three turnovers.
He hasn’t thrown more than one in his past seven games. He didn’t throw one against the New York Giants and Tennessee.
"Seeing it more, becoming more consistent in the decisions that are being made and not being so sporadic and doing different things versus the same look [is why he has cut his interceptions down]," Bortles said. "When you get the same look and have the same play call you want to do it over and over again so that everybody has a feel for what you’re going to do rather than doing multiple things. I think that was the biggest thing, was just becoming consistent with decisions."
Coach Gus Bradley said he was concerned that constant reminders of not turning the ball over might take away some of Bortles’ aggressiveness and wiliness to take chances here and there, but said that hasn’t been the case. Bortles is still aggressive and taking chances, but he’s smarter about when and where he takes chances.
Plus, he is more experienced and has a bank of knowledge from which to draw so he’s not making the same mistakes in certain situations he did earlier in the season.
"We don’t want to have him operate in any fear," Bradley said. "We want to protect that part of that environment and it was a challenge because there was multiple games with too many interceptions, but I think what’s impressive about him is we have challenged him to make good decisions, play smart, but it hasn’t affected his mentality. I think he goes out there and is willing to take chances and risks and he has been ultra-competitive throughout the whole thing.
"To me, that he has stayed true to who he is he has made corrections and has been consistent is what’s impressive. I think I remember a couple of weeks ago he said, ‘I’m coming up with more answers. When I’m out in the field and I see different looks I know where the answers are.’ I think that’s probably the biggest reason he’s made better decisions."
They may not always be the correct answers, Fisch said, but they have worked on game days. The evaluation usually comes on Mondays in the film room when Bortles details what he saw, why he made a certain throw, and whether the decision he made was the one he was supposed to make in that situation.
It’s easier for Bortles to answer those questions now than it was in October.
"As with everything it’s [gaining] experience," Fisch said. "One more game of experience. One more game of study. Better understanding of what we’re doing, where to go with the ball, how to get it out of your hands quicker.
"… The more understanding he has of what we do on offense, the more understanding he has of what other teams do on defense, the easier the answers come."
"I’ll continue to play the way I’ve been playing. I just won’t hang my hat on it."
Marks, who was named an alternate, was hurt by playing for a small-market team that has won just three games and appeared on national television only once. He finished 13th among defensive tackles in fan voting despite being second among all defensive tackles with 8.5 sacks. (Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus leads with 10.) He leads the Jaguars in sacks -- unusual for an interior lineman -- to go along with 42 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one pass breakup. More than half of his 16.5 career sacks have come this season.
Coach Gus Bradley said Marks has had a phenomenal season and deserves to be a Pro Bowler -- and is in his eyes.
"I can’t say enough good things about him," Bradley said. "I used him as an example to the team today about how he’s internally motivated, and when you build a team full of guys that are internally motivated you have really strong mindset and really strong team.
"I know what we believe in him and what our team thinks of him. He’s a Pro Bowl player, just what he brings every day to our locker room, what he brings to practice and on the field."
Marks could end up playing in the game, which will be played on Jan. 25 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, because Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy was selected to the game despite being on injured reserve with a knee injury. Other players may pull out for other reasons, too.
"If I’m called then I’ll go," Marks said. "I think it’s huge for not only me but for the team, for the organization, and the coaches and things like that, but it’s not something that I’ll hang my hat on and play for each year."
Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, 0 Pro Bowls: Marks, who was named an alternate, was hurt by playing for a small-market team that has won just three games and appeared on national television only once. He finished 13th among defensive tackles in fan voting despite being second among all defensive tackles with 8.5 sacks. (Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus leads with 10.) Marks is certainly deserving of making the Pro Bowl. He leads the Jaguars in sacks -- unusual for an interior lineman -- to go along with 42 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one pass breakup. More than half of his 16.5 career sacks have come this season.
Who he should have beaten out: Dareus was a lock, but both the Bills' defensive tackles didn't need to make the team. Marks has been the Jaguars' best player and the team's MVP in 2014. Kyle Williams (5.5 sacks) has played well but benefited from playing next to Dareus.
Should Marqise Lee catch five passes in Sunday's finale at Houston, the Jaguars would be the first team to have three rookie receivers catch at least 40 passes in a season. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are already well beyond that mark.
"It's a credit to those guys working hard," fourth-year receiver Cecil Shorts said. "They got here, they bought into what [receivers] coach [Jerry] Sullivan and coach Jedd [Fisch, the offensive coordinator] wanted and those guys have really worked hard to get where they're at.
Robinson had 48 catches for 548 yards and two touchdowns by the 10th game of the season but was put on injured reserve because of a stress fracture in his right foot. Hurns has caught 18 passes for 174 yards in the past four games and leads the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (662), and receiving touchdowns (six).
Lee has 35 catches for 414 yards and one touchdown and the bulk of that (22 for 273) has come in the past five games.
"We don't look at the stats as far as breaking records or anything like that," Lee said. "That [three rookie receivers with at least 40 catches] being a possibility is great but that's not the main focus for right now. Now that that did come up, it's always a hard time to get five catches even though five catches seams easy.
"My main focus is to go out there and continue to do the things that I was doing, catching the ball when it comes to me. I'm not really focused on breaking that record or even getting even close to it."
Lee struggled to learn the offense early in the season and also missed three games with a hamstring injury. Losing Robinson after the Dallas game in Week 10 forced the Jaguars to thrust him into a more prominent role.
He certainly has responded.
"I would say that's pretty clear that he has matured with his time here," coach Gus Bradley said. "I think I mentioned before and give credit to Jerry [Sullivan]. I think he's become more comfortable with what we're asking him to do."
Hurns was comfortable with the offense from the start because Fisch was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Miami in 2011-12. That familiarity was one of the reasons he signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent. He made a huge splash on opening day, catching four passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Philadelphia.
He already ranks in the top five among undrafted rookies in NFL history in receptions (tied for fifth), receiving yards (fifth), and receiving touchdowns (tied for second).
"I had confidence that I was able to play in this league but as far as the numbers that I'm putting up, coming in I just wanted to make the team," Hurns said. "If it was going to be special teams it was going to be special teams. I just wanted to be on the field."
Now he and his teammates have a chance to go into the NFL record book.
The entire class has contributed, and that's something that hasn't happened in the NFL in six years.
All nine of the Jaguars' draft picks have played in at least five games and seven have started at least one game. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last team that selected nine players in the draft and had all of them play in at least five games as rookies was Indianapolis in 2008: G Mike Pollak, LB Philip Wheeler, TE Jacob Tamme, DE Marcus Howard, TE Tom Santi, C Steve Justice, RB Mike Hart, WR Pierre Garcon and C Jamey Richard.
Also according to Elias, the last team to have at least seven draft picks start games as rookies was Buffalo in 2006. The Bills also had nine draft picks, and seven started games: safety Donte Whitner, DT John McCargo, CB Ashton Youboty, S Ko Simpson, DT Kyle Williams, LB Keith Ellison, OT Terrance Pennington, and G Aaron Merz.
Here's how the Jaguars' draft class breaks down in terms of playing time and starts:
QB Blake Bortles: 13 games (12 starts)
WR Marqise Lee: 12 games (seven starts)
WR Allen Robinson: 10 games (eight starts)
G Brandon Linder: 14 games (14 starts)
CB Aaron Colvin: five games (zero starts)
LB Telvin Smith: 15 games (nine starts)
DE Chris Smith: seven games (zero starts)
C Luke Bowanko: 15 (13 starts)
RB Storm Johnson: five games (1 start)
Boy, were we all wrong.
Bortles not only evaded pressure well against the Titans, he made some of the biggest plays in the game with his feet. He ran up the middle for 9 yards on third-and-9 to keep the Jaguars' first touchdown drive alive, and also had a 12-yard run to the Tennessee 2-yard line on their second touchdown drive. That run came on third-and-goal, but the Jaguars got a first down at the 1-yard line after Tennessee's Avery Williamson was penalized for holding.
Bortles also had a 19-yard run on a third-and-12 play later in the third quarter. The Jaguars didn't score on that drive, but it did help the Jaguars flip field position. The Jaguars began the drive on their own 9.
Bortles now has 358 yards rushing, the third-highest single-season total by a quarterback in franchise history. Mark Brunell holds the top two spots with 480 (1995) and 396 (1996).
He’s hoping for a repeat performance in Sunday’s game in Houston, though he knows it won’t be easy.
"I think you’ve always got to know where J.J. Watt is, regardless," Bradley said. "We knew that he moved around quite a bit and lined up on different personnel. They got some pressure on us, but some was just out of the pocket. Again, we played them two weeks ago or whatever it was, so you have an idea. They’re being pretty consistent.
"That game yesterday [against Baltimore] was a good game for us to watch. So you try to understand what we’re trying to do, and then how do you fit protections in with that."
Watt also had another tackle for loss, and drew a holding penalty that stalled a fourth-quarter drive that started with pass plays of 35 and 16 yards. Watt did most of his damage lining up on the left side the defensive formation, which meant he was matched up with Young. In addition to beating Young for one of the sacks, Watt also got by him to tackle Denard Robinson for a 4-yard loss.
The Jaguars trailed by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and were forced to send more players out in patterns, which resulted in undrafted free agent tight end Nic Jacobs having to block Watt one-on-one. That’s the play that drew the holding call.
"He’s as good as advertised," center Luke Bowanko said of Watt, who is second in the NFL with 17.5 sacks. "He’s a heck of a football player. We do things to try to shut him down but it’s hard, man. You’ve got to play your best game and get some help. He’s going to make his plays, but I have faith in our guys that we can block him."
If the last game is an indication, though Watt lines up everywhere on the defensive line, he might end up spending most of his time in front of Young, a fifth-year player making his 10th career start. Young said he’s more prepared for this matchup because he’s faced Watt.
"I have the context now to put it with to be able to say, 'OK I was trying to do this' or on that sack, 'hey what did I do, what did he do. How can I improve it?'" Young said. "You can’t be stagnant. When you’re trying to get better you look for areas and adjust them accordingly."
@ESPNdirocco: The Jaguars' defense calls for the strong safety to play in the box and the free safety to be athletic and fast enough to cover the width of the field. You need a guy that can run and has good instincts to play a single high safety. Collins seems more of a fit as a strong safety and the Jaguars are pleased with Johnathan Cyprien and feel he'll be a better player when they can pair him up with the right free safety. A name to watch is New England's Devin McCourty, a former corner who is scheduled to become a free agent.
@ESPNdirocco: I would rank an elite pass-rusher No. 1 followed by RT/OL and then linebacker. Now, that could change based on which players they sign in free agency. For example, if they find a right tackle they feel good about then that need drops and I'd move linebacker up followed by tight end and free safety.
@ESPNdirocco: I'm going to go on the assumption that 10 is an absolute lock to return in 2015 and 1 is no way. So, I'd put Cecil Shorts at a 1, Alan Ball at a 2, and Marcedes Lewis at a 3 (but he'd have to re-work his contract). I'm 50-50 on Geno Hayes, which would mean a 5, but I'm at a 7/8 on Tyson Alualu. He's had a solid season behind Red Bryant and I think the Jaguars want to re-sign him at reasonable money. I can't see a big market for him so I'm expecting him to be back.
@ESPNdirocco I think most Jags fans anticipated playoffs in 15 but now seems unlikely.I realy like Gus but what has to be record to keep job— James M. (@JMills1185) December 19, 2014
@ESPNdirocco: Making the playoffs next season is not out of the realm of possibility. Granted, a lot of things have to go right -- specifically, the OL has to improve and the rookies on offense, particularly Blake Bortles, need to take major steps -- but it's possible. I don't think it happens, though. As for Gus Bradley, I don't know that he gets fired if the team doesn't make the playoffs but I do think his seat gets screaming hot if the Jaguars don't enter next December hovering around .500. Winning five or six games isn't enough progress in 2015. I'm not saying he gets fired if that's the number of games they win next season but it would mean the Jaguars better make the playoffs in 2016.
@ESPNdirocco: It's impossible to answer this question because we don't yet know which players are going to be available. I know fans want the Jaguars to target tight end Julius Thomas, but there's no guarantee he hits the open market. Denver could sign receiver Demaryius Thomas to a big deal and franchise Julius Thomas, for instance. However, I can tell you what positions I believe the Jaguars are going to target: some veteran offensive linemen to provide competition and quality depth, a pass-catching tight end, and most likely a veteran receiver to replace Cecil Shorts. That doesn't mean Randall Cobb. Think more along the lines of what the Jaguars did in signing Torry Holt in 2009.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On paper, it looks like Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles played poorly against the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field on Thursday night.
He completed just 13 passes for 115 yards, both the lowest totals of his rookie season.
Those numbers, though, don't truly capture everything Bortles did to help the Jaguars beat the Titans 21-13 in front of 61,202 and a national television audience. On paper, he wasn't good. On the grass, he was.
After the Jaguars' offense managed just 16 yards on its first four possessions, Bortles sparked a pair of touchdown drives sandwiched around the halftime break to rally the Jaguars from a 10-0 deficit and send them to their third victory of the season. He did it with his legs as much as his arm, an impressive feat considering there was some doubt that he would even be on the field.
"You’re only going to see him continue to get better and better and better."
Bortles was limited in practice all week because of a right midfoot sprain, which he suffered on a sack during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 20-12 loss to Baltimore. Coach Gus Bradley wasn't sure Bortles would be able to play against the Titans until he watched the rookie go through a workout on the field several hours before the game. Even though Bortles was cleared to play, he was expected to be limited in terms of scrambling and running the ball.
Nobody told Bortles this, though. The No. 3 overall draft pick from Central Florida played the way he has all season -- he ran bootlegs, he scrambled away from pressure and he carried the ball on a couple of zone-read plays as well.
"If I was able to play, I was going to go play like I know how, like I do," Bortles said. "I wasn't going to go out there if I couldn't run around and move and help the offense at all."
For a while, he wasn't helping, but he wasn't alone. The Jaguars had just 16 yards on their first 14 offensive snaps. Bortles completed four of eight passes for 10 yards in that stretch and was sacked twice, including one on which he was hammered by linebacker Derrick Morgan and fumbled.
But things changed on the fifth possession, which began at the Jacksonville 20-yard line with 3:46 remaining in the first half. Bortles completed five of seven passes for 42 yards and a touchdown and also had a 9-yard scramble to convert a third-and-9. Three plays later he found tight end Marcedes Lewis for a 4-yard touchdown.
Bortles was even better on the first possession of the second half. He hooked up with Marqise Lee for a 34-yard reception on third-and-7 and also ran for 12 yards on a third-and-goal from the 14. The Titans were penalized for holding on the play, giving the Jaguars a first down at the 1-yard line.
Bortles also had a 19-yard scramble on third-and-12 later in the third quarter, finishing with 50 yards on five carries.
So much for limited mobility.
It was a gritty performance, especially from a rookie who is still adjusting to the speed of the game, learning to read defenses and playing behind an offensive line that has allowed a team-record 66 sacks.
"We've known this whole time he's a tough guy," left tackle Luke Joeckel said. "We watch him play. He’s a hard-nosed guy. He takes some hits and he pops right back up. We knew going in this game he was a little bit limited, but he didn't show it at all and he made plays.
"He's got that confidence and he's got that ability. He's a great leader and he's fun to follow. As an offensive lineman, you love to follow guys that go out there and just compete."
It wasn't pretty, and anyone just looking at the box score will call this one of Bortles' worst games. In reality, it was probably one of his best. He was struggling, and the offense was struggling, but he came through when it mattered most. We saw that against the New York Giants, when he led the Jaguars on a game-winning drive, and we saw it again against the Titans.
"You know you're going to have games like this and you're going to win," Bortles said. "I couldn't be happier to be a part of it. Some things are going to happen and you're going to win games when you throw for 400 yards and you lose some as well. So it’s part of it. I'm just glad we won."
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 21-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Field.
What it means: The Jaguars' offense finally showed some life Thursday night, and it was a long time coming. The Jaguars entered the game against the Titans with just two offensive touchdowns in their last four games and spent their first four drives looking like they were playing with only eight men on the field. The offensive line gave up two sacks while the Jaguars totaled just 16 yards. But things turned on their final possession of the first half. Quarterback Blake Bortles started scrambling and making plays, running back Toby Gerhart pounded out some tough yards, and receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Marcedes Lewis made a couple of big catches. The 80-yard drive ended with Bortles' 4-yard touchdown pass to Lewis. The Jaguars went 72 yards for another touchdown on their first possession of the second half. Those two drives were the best the offense has looked since before the bye week in mid-November.
Stock watch: If this indeed was the last home game for receiver Cecil Shorts, he didn't exactly go out with a bang. Shorts caught two passes for 15 yards and he and Bortles just didn't seem to be in sync at all. Bortles targeted Shorts seven times, and at least three of those passes appeared to be catchable. Granted, a few would have been tough, but as the only veteran receiver on the roster he needs to make those catches. Shorts did have a key catch to convert a third down on the Jaguars' clock-eating final drive to preserve the victory, though. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and his chances of re-signing aren't good unless he's willing to accept a deal for significantly less money than he'd like.
Big swing: The Jaguars opened up a double-digit lead -- haven't been able to write that sentence much this season -- on a two-play sequence. The defense stopped the Titans on fourth-and-2 by forcing quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to throw short of the first-down marker, and running back Jordan Todman went 62 yards for a touchdown on the next play to put the Jaguars ahead 21-10 with nine minutes to play.
Game ball: Bortles' numbers weren't great (13-of-26, 115 yards, one touchdown), but he did ignite the offense late in the first half by making plays by running (a 9-yard scramble on third-and-9) and hitting some key throws. He ended up rushing for 50 yards on five carries.
What's next: The Jaguars finish the 2014 season at Houston on Dec. 28.
The Jacksonville Jaguars-Tennessee Titans game on Thursday night certainly doesn't have playoff implications. Not with both teams at 2-12.
But the game does mean something. It's a race to avoid finishing in the AFC South cellar and jockey for draft position. The Jaguars and Titans are two of four 2-12 teams and one 3-11 team (Washington) battling for the No. 1 draft pick.
In a way, it's probably better to finish last in the division because that team would end up with a home game against the last-place AFC West team in 2015 -- which is the 2-12 Oakland Raiders. Finishing third in the division would mean a game against either Kansas City or San Diego.
ESPN NFL Nation Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup:
DiRocco: We talked earlier this season about Jake Locker. Now I'll ask about Zach Mettenberger. Has Ken Whisenhunt seen enough to know if he's the QB around which he can build the offense?
Kuharsky: We don't know. They got six starts from Mettenberger before he suffered the shoulder injury that meant he'd watch the final three games from the sideline. He showed progress in many areas and fits the Whisenhunt mold -- big guy, big arm, not going to scramble around, will stand in the pocket and face down pressure. But they didn't see him in the fourth quarter of a close game and he was unable to help engineer a win. He and the offense were horrifically bad on third down.
What are the alternatives? They could be in position to draft Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. But Mariota's ability to run is a big element of his game, and Whisenhunt doesn't like that. And Winston has a lot of baggage. The free-agent market is always weak. Good quarterbacks get re-signed. Heck, Locker could be the second-best guy coming free.
I think Mettenberger is probably the starter on opening day, but they need to get some reasonable alternative on the roster.
Blake Bortles has been sacked 46 times and thrown 17 picks to go with 10 TDs. The supporting cast is poor, but what else is behind the poor rookie season?
DiRocco: The first thing is to remember that the Jaguars did not want to play him in 2014 and were forced to because the offense, aside from the first half of the season opener, was non-functional with Chad Henne. That being said, Bortles has footwork issues, doesn't make decisions as quickly as he needs to at times and also tries to do too much instead of making the easy play. In short, he's behaving like 99 percent of rookie quarterbacks.
All of those are fixable problems and the No. 1 task in the offseason will be fixing his footwork. He did not get good coaching in this area at Central Florida and it was one of the main reasons the Jaguars did not want him to play in 2014. One coach told me that when Bortles uses the proper footwork -- when he takes the proper drop, when his feet are in the proper position, when he steps into the throw correctly -- the ball leaps out of his hand and he's very accurate. When he doesn't, however, the ball floats and he's not as accurate.
You did hit on another big reason for his struggles. The Jaguars just aren't very good along the offensive line and have had to rely on five rookies in the starting lineup on offense. That's not a recipe for good football.
Was Whisenhunt caught a bit off-guard by how much of a rebuild he was facing? It seems like a lot of us expected the Titans to be better than this (I did) and not locked in a battle for the No. 1 pick.
Kuharsky: He was asked after the Week 4 loss in Indianapolis whether he might have overestimated what he inherited and he said maybe. It's an answer he regretted, because it fueled questions about his ability to assess other things. I thought the Titans would be closer to the Jaguars than to the Colts, but I saw seven wins against a bad schedule. They've lost to some really bad teams and look to be far, far away from being relevant. There are a load of contributing factors, but Whisenhunt's been too stubbornly committed to his systems rather than bending more to what the roster offers.
This is the one look most of the country gets at the Jaguars and EverBank Field this season. Will people see anything to suggest the Dave Caldwell-Gus Bradley regime is making progress? The record doesn't suggest it.
DiRocco: Bradley was asked about this on Monday, because at 2-12 there doesn't seem to be any progress made in Year 2. His response was that he's seeing significant improvement in some of the young players, such as right guard Brandon Linder, center Luke Bowanko, receiver Marqise Lee and Bortles. That isn't correlating to unit progress, though. So while some of the young offensive linemen are better players now than they were in October, the line isn't playing any better.
There isn't much progress on defense from last season in terms of stats. The passing and rushing yardage allowed is similar, but the Jaguars have seven more sacks this season than in 2013. The unit has done a better job of keeping the Jaguars in games, and had the offense not turned the ball over against Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Miami, the Jaguars could be sitting at five victories right now.
The Titans are one of the few teams that have forced fewer turnovers than the Jaguars (18). What has been the biggest reason the defense can't get takeaways?
Kuharsky: The secondary has a tendency to be in position but allow catches, so those guys are often two significant steps away from grabbing an interception. The pass rush is lacking so it doesn't force quarterbacks into bad throws very often. And it's a poor tackling defense, which has trouble getting guys to the ground, gang tackling and stripping the ball loose. Teams have run 49 percent of the time against the Titans, which seems to reduce the chances of taking the ball away.
Sen'Derrick Marks wasn't wanted by the Titans when his contract expired. He seems to rate as a foundational piece for the Jaguars. How has he done and is he a big piece of their plan?
DiRocco: Marks is indeed one of the building blocks on defense, which the Jaguars proved by signing him to a four-year extension last December. He earned that deal by playing the best football of his career (4.0 sacks, 33 tackles, eight pass breakups). What's impressive about Marks is that he's been even better after he signed his four-year, $22 million deal. He is playing at a Pro Bowl level, though he'll have to get votes from the players and coaches to make the squad. He has 39 tackles and 7.5 sacks, which is a half-sack shy of earning him a $600,000 performance bonus. That many sacks from an interior lineman is unusual and shows just how dominant he has been in his second season in Jacksonville. The Jaguars recently signed defensive tackle Roy Miller to a four-year extension, locking up their two defensive tackles for at least three more years.
No offense to the 32-year-old Tennessee Titans quarterback, who has made just seven career starts, but at one point this season he was the Titans' No. 3 quarterback behind Jake Locker and Zach Mettenberger.
That's a bit befuddling. Whitehurst couldn't beat out one of the bigger first-round quarterback busts of the last decade and a rookie sixth-round pick to be the Titans' starter, but he was able to beat the Jaguars. Whitehurst threw for a career-high 233 yards and didn't turn the ball over in the Titans' 16-14 victory in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 12.
"He's mobile in the pocket and he did a good job of keeping it away from us," defensive coordinator Bob Babich said. "He was very accurate. He threw the ball away when he got pressure and didn't throw panic throws into coverage. I thought he played game smart."
That was the first victory for Whitehurst as a starting quarterback since he was with Seattle and beat St. Louis 16-6 on Jan. 2, 2011. He has thrown for 1,772 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions in nine seasons with San Diego, Seattle and Tennessee but didn't throw a pass in the regular season for the first four years of his career.
Whitehurst has never scored more than 17 points in any game he has started and has completed more than 13 passes in any game in which he has played just twice.
As well as the Jaguars have played defensively the past month, it would be discouraging to let Whitehurst put up good numbers again. The Jaguars held Andrew Luck to 68 yards below his average, returned two fumbles for touchdowns against the New York Giants, held Ryan Fitzpatrick to 135 yards passing, and held Joe Flacco to 220 yards and Justin Forsett to just 48 yards rushing.
The Jaguars are already fighting for respect. Losing again to Whitehurst and the 2-12 Titans at home on national television won't help.
Bradley said Wednesday that he’s leaning more toward playing Bortles, but wants to see how the rookie’s sprained right foot handles a light workout several hours before kickoff before he makes a final decision.
Bortles suffered the injury during the Jaguars’ 20-12 loss at Baltimore last Sunday. It came when he was chased down by linebackers Pernell McPhee and Terrell Suggs for a 10-yard loss midway through the fourth quarter. That was the seventh time Bortles was sacked. He limped off the field but remained in the game and was sacked once more on the Jaguars’ final drive.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Bortles has thrown for 2,676 yards and 10 touchdowns with 17 interceptions and needs just 143 yards and four touchdown passes to surpass Bryon Leftwich’s rookie records in those categories. Leftwich threw for 2,819 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2003.
In other Jaguars injury news, defensive end Andre Branch (groin) and linebacker Khairi Fortt (hamstring) are out. Defensive end Chris Clemons (knee) and receiver Marqise Lee (elbow) are probable. Defensive end Ryan Davis (hip pointer), safety Josh Evans (foot), and receiver Tommy Streeter (abdomen) are questionable.
Bradley said the Jaguars called a lot of three-step drops because of the Ravens' pass rush (Elvis Dumervil entered the game with 16 and Suggs had 8.5), but Bortles didn't get rid of the ball quickly. Instead of throwing it away when the receivers were covered he tried to scramble or took too long trying to find a second option, and that resulted in a sack.
"You look at it and there’s some three-step drops in there where they covered us pretty well," Bradley said. "The line is cutting and those are types you look at Blake and say, 'You’ve just got to get rid of it.' I think in Blake’s defense is he’s made some plays happen after there’s been a breakdown when he gets out of the pocket, and he made a big play to [Allen] Hurns yesterday doing that. I think at times when it’s not right there he’ll try to extend the play, and a couple of times yesterday that got us in trouble with some sacks."