By Matt Citak
As the NFL enters Week 11 of the 2017 season, it appears that the race for the AFC South crown has come down to two teams: the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. The Jaguars are 6-3 and coming off an overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Jacksonville has been riding the play of its stellar defense this season, as the unit is averaging a league-best 14.9 points allowed per game and ranks third with 285.8 yards allowed per game. The Jaguars also lead the NFL with 35.0 sacks, six sacks more than the next highest total, and are second in turnovers with 18. Defensive end Calais Campbell and his 11.0 sacks this season trail only DeMarcus Lawrence’s 11.5 sacks for the most in the NFL.
The other team vying for the AFC South title is the Tennessee Titans, who are currently tied with Jacksonville at 6-3. After being crushed 57-14 by the Houston Texans in Week 4, Marcus Mariota has led Tennessee to four consecutive victories. Mariota is averaging 247.8 passing yards per game during that span, while his 51 rushing yards in Week 10 seem to indicate that the young quarterback is getting closer to 100 percent after injuries slowed him down earlier in the season. The Titans beat the Jaguars 37-16 in the first meeting between the two franchises back in Week 2.
While the Jaguars and Titans have found a lot of success in 2017, the same cannot be said for the AFC South’s the other two teams. Both the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts lost their starting quarterbacks for the season, with Deshaun Watson tearing his ACL in practice a few weeks ago and Andrew Luck never able to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Houston and Indianapolis, entering Week 11 with just three wins each, and without their top signal callers under center for the remainder of the season, do not have much of a chance to climb back into the AFC playoff picture. Both teams hope to get their franchise quarterbacks back and fully healthy for the 2018 season.
CBS Sports and INSIDE THE NFL analyst Boomer Esiason weighed in on the AFC South playoff race, and how the division might come down to a Week 17 battle in Nashville.
Esiason, along with Phil Simms, Ray Lewis, and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime’s Inside The NFL.
CBS Local Sports: The Jaguars defense has been one of the league’s best this season. What is the biggest difference between last year and this year’s unit?
Boomer Esiason: Turnovers and pressure. When you look at the players they added this offseason via free agency, like Barry Church, Calais Campbell, and, of course, A.J. Bouye, you basically have three levels of players that are having a profound impact. They put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They get a lot of turnovers. And they are always thinking touchdown when they get their hands on the ball. This is going to be a very formidable defense moving forward. They will be right there towards the end of the regular season. It is shaping up to be a Week 17 showdown between the Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans for the division crown.
CBS Local Sports: Although he’s put together a few solid outings over the last month, Blake Bortles has been one of Jacksonville’s biggest weaknesses this year. Is Bortles capable of leading the Jaguars on a postseason run?
Boomer Esiason: Right now, it’s really hard to see that. It’s hard for me to see them beating either Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger or New England with Tom Brady. Those guys are battle-tested. They know what it takes to win playoff games. Even though Jacksonville will bring probably the best defense to the playoffs, the big question mark is whether or not Blake can settle down. I see a nervous quarterback. I see a quarterback that’s afraid to make a mistake. And I see a quarterback that continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. That is Jacksonville’s biggest deficiency and their biggest question mark.
CBS Local Sports: After a slow start, Tennessee has won four consecutive games, all while Marcus Mariota has been less than 100 percent. How dangerous can this Titans team be with a healthy Mariota?
Boomer Esiason: They are more of your traditional, throwback team. They want to run the football. They want to try to play defense against you and keep the score low. Marcus is growing steadily, there’s no question about that. His ability to move and make plays on the run is what separates him from Blake Bortles within the division. Mariota is clearly the better quarterback, but Jacksonville has the better defense. They are both very similar in terms of their running game and offensive line, unless you take a look at the two-headed monster that is DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry for Tennessee. The one thing I will say about both of these teams is that they are both physical, old-school, throwback-type teams. They do not rely on the forward pass like some of these other teams do. That’s one of the reasons why this matchup is going to be so interesting moving forward.
CBS Local Sports: The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts are playing without their franchise quarterbacks, as Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck are both out for the season. Will either team be able to rebound and get back in the playoff race?
Boomer Esiason: I don’t believe either one will, even though Jacoby Brissett is actually playing pretty well in place of Andrew Luck. In this league, if you don’t have a top-end quarterback, then you need to have a great defense. Both of these teams have been significantly injured in so many different areas, especially the Texans along their defensive line. The support is not there for Tom Savage. It’s unfortunate that both of these teams are going to be out of it, but at least they have something to look forward to. Hopefully their franchise signal callers come back next year.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.