NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans (9-7) closed out 2017 with a regular season sweep of the AFC South champion Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) New Year’s Eve at Nissan Stadium by a final margin of 15-10. The victory guaranteed a second place finish in their division, back-to-back winning seasons after being the League’s worst team in the 2015 campaign and Tennessee’s first playoff appearance since 2008.
“It’s hard to describe,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said of his feelings on making the postseason after Sunday’s win. “I’m just so happy for these guys. These guys deserve an opportunity to get in the tournament. It’s been a lot of hard work from a lot of different people. We’re looking forward to next week and hoping we can build one after another.”
Mariota completed 12 of his 21 passing attempts for 134 yards and a touchdown but made his presence felt in the rushing game, leading the team with 60 yards on 10 carries. His 13-yard dash on third-and-five from the Tennessee 44, complete with a vicious stiff-arm and stare-down of Jacksonville safety Barry Church, came with just over two minutes remaining in the contest and effectively cemented his team’s playoff status.
It was the defining moment of the third-year quarterback’s 2017 campaign and the impetus needed for a franchise that had lost it’s past three match-ups leading into the finale.
“It was a great run, a great run,” coach Mike Mularkey said post-game. “I told him obviously he’s been taking notes from Derrick (Henry) and DeMarco (Murray) with stiff-arming, because that was a huge play to get us down and make them burn timeouts, to stay inbounds and keep the clock running.”
— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) January 1, 2018
The Titans opened the scoring in the second quarter with a 66-yard screen pass for a touchdown to Henry, who started in place of the veteran Murray while he reportedly dealt with a 3rd degree MCL tear. The lead was only 6-0, though, after kicker Ryan Succop’s extra point attempt was blocked.
It was Henry’s only catch of the day but the Alabama product shouldered the majority of the workload in the ground game with 51 yards on 28 carries for a paltry 1.8 average yards per carry. Henry was the only back to record a rushing attempt; Mariota and rookie receiver Taywan Taylor ( one carry, five yards) were the only other contributors in that area.
Succop kicked and made three field goals (two in the second quarter and one in the third) to provide the remainder of Tennessee’s points.
The defense also contributed mightily in the effort. Safety Kevin Byard picked off Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles for his seventh and eighth interceptions of the year to give him a tie with Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions for the most in the NFL in the 2017 regular season. Corner Adoree’ Jackson and linebacker Avery Williamson forced fumbles, the former recovered by the Titans. Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo each recorded a sack of Bortles, respectively.
Tight end Phillip Supernaw also snagged a fumble recovery on a muffed punt.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s unit slowed Jacksonville’s starting offense, who played the entire game despite having the division title and a playoff spot locked up, holding them to 229 total net yards and 41-yard made field goal by Josh Lambo. The Jaguars finished the year averaging 365.9 yards per game, good for sixth best.
But, as has been the case with this iteration of the Titans, the win did not come smoothly.
Mariota lost his first fumble of the season deep in Jacksonville territory with the opportunity to put the Jags away. Byard’s first takeaway set the offense up with a first-and-10 on their opponents 41-yard line. Six plays later, Tennessee had moved the ball to their opponent’s 26 but Mariota collided with Henry while attempting to hand off the snap and the ball came loose. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue proceeded to scoop and score for the Jaguars lone touchdown of the day and the final margin of 15-10.
Additionally, the offense again struggled to convert third downs (19%) and Henry had difficulty gaining ground early on in his fourth career start but Mariota’s stiff-arming run and another Byard interception with :10 on the clock locked up the fifth seed in the AFC and a trip to Kansas City for a Wildcard Weekend with the Chiefs (10-6)
Mike Mularkey’s squad has now recorded consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the franchise did it in 2007 (10-6) and 2008 (13-3) and posted a 5-1 divisional record, their best since 2002.
INJURIES: Murray (knee) was listed on the injury report coming into the game and was inactive. Left tackle Taylor Lewan left with an undisclosed injury in the fourth quarter but would return to finish out the game.
Mularkey noted that reserve cornerback Kalan Reed “came out with a concussion and he was probably the most serious and did not return. Other than that, pretty healthy.”
UP NEXT: The Titans will play Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium Saturday, January 6th at 3:20 PM CT on ESPN and ABC.