The Jacksonville Jaguars aren't having the best season, but the Tennessee Titans aren't exactly juggernauts themselves, either. Besides, under new quarterback Chad Henne, the Jaguars gave the Houston Texans a run for their money last week.
The Titans are coming off their bye, and should be well rested and prepared. Jacksonville isn't one of the toughest opponents out there, but they aren't pushovers; if the Titans aren't careful, they could fall into a trap game.
Here are seven things the Titans will need to do to ensure a victory against the Jaguars on Sunday.
Right now, everyone thinks that the Jaguars are one of, if not the, worst team in the NFL. Even the most confident Jaguars players are thinking, somewhere in the back of their minds, that they will lose this game.
The Titans have to play to that thought process by scoring early. Once the Titans take a lead, the Jags players will, at least on some level, think "here we go again," and might give up a little sooner.
Now I'm not saying that the players will lay down once the Titans are ahead, but if the Titans take a lead early on, that creeping doubt will start to make its way into the players' heads, and the smallest things can make a huge difference in the NFL.
Taking a lead early is important in every game, but when you're playing a team everyone expects you to beat, it just becomes that much more important.
The Jaguars do have one thing in their favor psychologically, and that's the change at quarterback.
Blaine Gabbert was placed on injured reserve last week, and so quarterbacking was taken up by Chad Henne, who looked great against the Texans despite the loss. The Titans need to get him rattled early on if they can.
An early turnover, a big sack, or even just a couple of big hits would do a lot to make Henne unsettled, and that's what the Titans should look for.
As maligned as the Titans defense has been this season, they're coming off of a stellar performance against the Dolphins, and it all got started with an early forced fumble. Two great defensive games in a row would do a lot for the defense's confidence.
Henne seems to be the only thing Jacksonville has going for it right now. If the Titans can make him a non-factor, the Jags will be dead in the water.
I know I just said to be aggressive against Henne early on, but the main focus for the defense through the entire game must be on stopping the run.
The Jaguars' rush attack is the worst in the NFL statistically, but that's misleading. It certainly isn't a great rush attack now that Maurice Jones-Drew is injured, but one reason they have so few rushing yards is that they constantly play from behind and can't afford to run the ball.
Their passing offense has looked absolutely inept all season, and the success Henne had last week could be as much to do with luck as skill. Henne has played for years, and I don't think he's suddenly turned into a great quarterback.
With that in mind, if I'm the Titans, I'm putting most of my resources into stopping the run and forcing the Jags to throw the ball. I'd trust Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty to shut down Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon any day.
Ideally, the defense will shut down both facets of the Jags offense, but I think keeping them off the field by forcing them to throw is the better route to victory in this instance.
The Jaguars feature one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They rank 28th against the pass and 29th against the run. The Titans should take advantage of both weaknesses.
Jake Locker is probably still recovering to some degree, and Chris Johnson has been inconsistent this season, so putting the game on the shoulders of either player could be risky, even against such weak defensive groups.
There's also the fact that Javon Ringer is still injured, and now, so is Jamie Harper. There's suddenly a lack of depth at running back that makes keeping Johnson healthy incredibly important. A conservative, run-heavy offense could leave the Titans without a reliable runner.
With Locker too, no one wants to see him re-injure his shoulder again, so keeping attacks off of him is important.
A balanced approach is the way to go, at least until the Titans see what works the best.
Jake Locker looked pretty good in his first game back since he re-injured his shoulder, but he struggled to be accurate. Against the Dolphins, Locker completed only nine of 21 passes. That isn't good enough.
Against a poor Jaguars secondary, he ought to be much better, but all the same, it'd be good for his (and the team's) confidence for him to have a very high completion percentage at the end of the game.
To make sure of that, the coaching staff needs to work in a lot of easy throws in the offensive scheme. Now I don't think they shouldn't let Locker do his thing when he wants, just that he can't throw it downfield every play.
However, even while it's great to let his talent come through, he needs to have some easy, short passes to work on his accuracy.
But, beyond just making sure your opponent can't make a comeback, running up the score serves to make a statement to the rest of the league, especially to the Titans' remaining opponents.
If the Titans win at Miami 37-3, then follow it up with a win at Jacksonville by a large margin, then the Colts, Jets, Texans and Packers will start to look at Tennessee as a very different team than they were just a couple of weeks ago.
Furthermore, as bad as the Jaguars are, not winning by a large margin will make the Titans look bad—and when they're still technically in the playoff hunt, they don't want to do that.
At the end of the day, despite the fact that it's an away game, this should be a win for the Titans if they go out there and simply execute. The only way they'll lose is if they make a bunch of stupid errors or if the Jaguars just play perfectly.
Don't be overly aggressive on fourth downs, don't forget to factor in injuries, especially those of players that are still playing and don't waste timeouts.
As long as the Titans play fundamentally soundly, I have every confidence that they'll end the day with a record that reads 5-6 and puts them one step closer to a possible playoff berth.