JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson saw this coming. No, really.
Pederson first started telling his players they would have a chance to make the postseason in early November, after a five-game losing streak dropped them to 2-6 and left them four games behind the Titans in the loss column.
It seemed comical to some, improbable to most. But they rolled with it, trusted Pederson and ended up in a winner-take-all game against rival Tennessee that will decide the AFC South on Saturday night.
“Coach Pederson said, ‘I’ve got a crystal ball, this thing’s going to come down to Week 18 and we’re going to have a shot,’” quarterback Trevor Lawrence recalled. “We all jumped on board. We believed it. We kept putting in the work, and we’re here now. We knew this was coming.”
Pederson made one part clear: he didn’t actually hold up a crystal ball as he prophetically stood in front of his team two months ago.
“I just had to make sure that our guys understood that everything was still in front of us,” Pederson said. “We had to play one game at a time and just focus on that one week. If we did that, it would give us an opportunity to be in Week 18 for all the marbles.”
Now, not only is Jacksonville in position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, but it could prevent a division rival from making the postseason for the second time in as many years. The Jags stunned Indianapolis in the 2021 regular-season finale at TIAA Bank Field.
Knocking out the slumping Titans (7-9) wouldn’t be nearly as shocking. Injury-riddled Tennessee has lost six in a row and will start journeyman Joshua Dobbs at quarterback for the second straight week. Jacksonville (8-8), meanwhile, has won four straight and is a 6 1/2-point favorite at home, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“The only thing that matters is moving forward,” said Titans two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. “And I mean all the games we done lost, all the games we done won, it don’t matter. We have to go find a way to beat Jacksonville this Saturday.”
Derrick Henry comes into the game rested after the Titans scratched him last week before a loss to Dallas. The move likely cost Henry a chance at a third NFL rushing title. He ranks third in the league with 1,429 yards — 19 behind Cleveland's Nick Chubb for second and 179 behind Josh Jacobs of Las Vegas.
Henry traditionally plays well against Jacksonville, a short drive from his hometown of Yulee. Henry has two 200-yard games and three 100-yard games against the Jaguars. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard run in 2018 against the Jaguars. Henry turned 29 on Wednesday and said he’s ready to get back to work.
“I don’t feel 29,” Henry said.
The Jaguars are treating the finale like a playoff opener. They allowed fans to pick the team's uniform combination and are planning to paint the end zone teal and hand out teal towels to fans during what's arguably the most important regular-season game in franchise history.
Tennessee's Ryan Stonehouse is poised to shatter an NFL record that has stood for more than eight decades. Stonehouse is averaging an NFL-leading 53 yards per punt. Sammy Baugh averaged 51.4 yards per punt in 1940, setting a record that remains the best qualifying single-season punting average in NFL history.
Jacksonville has allowed three points in each of its last two games, both against struggling quarterbacks. But the real turning point for the unit came at Tennessee in Week 14.
Henry was gouging Jacksonville on the ground — he had 96 yards in the first quarter alone — and had them headed toward the red zone again when backup linebacker Shaq Quarterman hit Henry so hard near the sideline that the ball came loose. The Jags recovered, scored a touchdown six plays later to take their first lead and never looked back.
“Definitely meant a lot to make a play,” Quarterman said. “I have so much respect for Derrick. Growing up in (Jacksonville), I’ve seen him do great things, go off to college and do great things.”
HEALTHIER PASS RUSH
The Titans expect to have pass rushers Denico Autry (biceps) and Jeffery Simmons (ankle) together and at their healthiest in weeks. Autry, who sat out five of the team's six losses, is back. And he'll be joined by Simmons, who rested during last week's game. Autry has a team-high eight sacks, with Simmons just behind at 7 1/2.
One of the games Autry missed was the loss to Jacksonville in Nashville when the Titans didn’t sack Lawrence even once, and the second-year quarterback threw for 368 yards and three touchdowns.
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Mark Long, The Associated Press