NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If the Tennessee Titans need a quick lesson on playing winless teams in November and December, then all they have to do is look into their own recent history.
It was two seasons ago in mid-December when the Colts — winless in their first 13 games — came calling on LP Field. The Titans, on the other hand, were in the playoff hunt with a 7-6 record in Mike Munchak’s first season as head coach.
Those Colts would not only win the first of two games they would win all season, but eventually keep the Titans, who won their last two games to finish 9-7, out of the playoffs. Win 10 games and the Titans would have made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Now, fast forward nearly two years.
The Titans (4-4) are again in the playoff hunt and play host to an old nemesis and AFC South rival in the winless Jaguars (0-8) on Sunday, who’ve split the two contests against the Titans each of the past four seasons.
“We had already beaten Indy once when they were 0-13,” Munchak said earlier this week about 2011, “and they ended up beating us and (eventual AFC South champion) Houston back-to-back. In this league, there’s great players on every football team. I think you learn. I think people understand that can happen.”
Speaking of lessons, Munchak plans to lean on those learned by Titans players and coaches from their own background, where most everybody has been on the losing end of a game they were supposed to win.
“Believe me, players are well aware of that,” said Munchak, whose team is a double-digit favorite for the first time this season. “I think going back to when they grew up playing football, (the players) all probably have a story of that happening to them or them doing it to someone else with, ‘Hey, we haven’t won a game all year and we played this team and we beat them.’ They all have those stories. I had them when I played. … We all lived one two years ago.”
The Jaguars, though, have been downright bad under first-year head coach Gus Bradley, the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator the previous four years. They have lost every game by at least 10 points and half of them by 25 points or more. Then again, the Jaguars have played one of the toughest schedules in the league with six of eight opponents currently at .500 or better.
Jacksonville is completely void of talent, either. Offensively, they feature three-time Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who has rushed for 391 yards, and veteran quarterback Chad Henne, who has started and played solidly the last three games. For the season, he has completed 132 of 218 passes for 1,450 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Still, Jacksonville is last in the league in eight team offensive categories, including yards per game (286.5), yards per play (4.5) and first downs per game (16.5). And lead wide receiver Justin Blackmon was suspended by the league the first four games, had 415 receiving yards the last four games, and then was suspended indefinitely earlier this week following his latest violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“Justin Blackmon was great when he was here as far as in-house, on the field, in the locker room,” Bradley said of the oft-troubled No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft. “We care deeply about him as a person, and our locker room feels the same way. I think right now part of us is excited about where Justin’s going and the next step that he’s taking just because we care so much about him.”
Defensively, the Jaguars are at the bottom of the NFL in five categories, including rushing yards allowed per game (161.8). That stat has to get the attention of the Titans, who saw their run game resurrected in last Sunday’s 28-21 win at St. Louis.
Running back Chris Johnson, who had averaged only 25.7 yards the previous four games, gained a season-high 150 yards. Chipping in was backup back Shonn Greene, who also had a season high with 38 yards.
According to Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, the running burst was a combination of additions. The offensive line finally had rookie center Brian Schwenke, the projected starter from training camp before a hamstring injury, finally start the last two games. And it was also Greene finally getting fully healthy and providing a power run game to complement the speedy Johnson.
“The more those guys play, every game (the run game) should get a little bit better and gel and get going,” Loggains said. “And now that they’ve done it, the expectation is that we need to quit using that word gel and now just go do it week in and week out.”
Last Sunday, Titans quarterback Jake Locker was also playing his second game back after missing two outings with hip and knee injuries, and the offense seemed to return to the balance that netted the Titans a 3-1 start and not the three-game losing streak snapped last Sunday.
Defensively, the Titans will be without starting middle linebacker Moise Fokou for a second game with a knee injury. But third-year Colin McCarthy, the starter the past two seasons, has filled in nicely, sharing the team lead in tackles the past two games.
But the star of the Titans’ defense continues to be third-year tackle Jurrell Casey, who had a career-high 10 tackles and matched a career-high of two sacks against the Rams. He leads the team with six sacks.
“That’s a lot of sacks,” Munchak said of Casey, who is seeking to break the NFL single-season record of 18 sacks by defensive tackles set by Titans defensive line assistant Keith Millard. ” … He obviously wants to beat Millard. I think Millard has got the record as defensive tackles, and Keith’s trying to help him get there.
“I’m excited about how he’s playing. I thought from the day we got him here, we got a very good football player.”