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Fatal Blow
by Dennis Ranahan

Tis’ the season of spoilers and contenders in the National Football League, and tonight we have an AFC South Division battle that fits the bill.

The Titans are looking to stay in the hunt for a Wild Card berth, something they saved last week with a late rally to overcome the New York Jets. The Jaguars, who advanced to the AFC Championship Game a year ago, are mired in a miserable campaign that has their season reduced to no more than a spoiler role.

So, who gets the advantage in this primetime contest played at Nissan Stadium in Nashville?

Three weeks ago the Jaguars, despite losing five games in a row, had a shot to get back into the playoff hunt with a home win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. They appeared on their way, leading 16-0 … but a late collapse allowed the Steelers to slip out of town with a 20-16 win. The victory kept Pittsburgh atop their division race and for all practical purposes dropped Jacksonville out of contention.

Two weeks ago, the Jaguars followed up that loss with a sixth straight setback in Buffalo, 24-21, and that loss to the Bills put a nail in their playoff coffin.

Wouldn’t last week be the spot that the Jaguars would pack it in? The organization appeared ready to move onto the work of getting ready for the future as they benched quarterback Blake Bortles, after he had made 72 consecutive starts, in favor of Cody Kessler, who had eight previous NFL starts, all with the Cleveland Browns, and had never won.

Last Sunday, the Jaguars were also without their top rusher, Leonard Fournette, who was suspended for a game by the league. Seemed an unlikely spot for a Jaguars win when Andrew Luck led his Colts into town riding a five game winning streak and firmly in the hunt for a Wild Card berth.

Instead of the Jaguars losing run extended to eight games, and the Colts winning a sixth straight, Jacksonville’s defense showed up and shutout Luck and company, 6-0. The victory doesn’t much improve the Jaguars playoff possibilities, greatly hurt the Colts prospects, and is one more example of the contender/spoiler factor generating surprise December results in the NFL.

Last week, in Tennessee, the Titans were looking to snap a two game losing streak against the New York Jets to keep their playoff hopes alive. Instead of easily downing the Jets, they were favored by double-digits, the Titans were behind by 10 points before their fans had settled into their seats. All afternoon the Titans were on the ropes, until two late TD’s salvaged a narrow Tennessee victory, 26-22.

Now the Titans look to improve their playoff prospects and handle a Jaguars team with nothing more to play for than to ruin the Titans chances.

Contender versus spoiler.

Kessler will get his second start and look to win games back-to-back. He will have Fournette to work with in his backfield, an element that will surely be an added benefit, but is asking Kessler to win again like betting on lightning to strike twice in the same spot?

I think Tennessee wins tonight, but the expanding point spread, it opened with the home standing Titans favored by four points and has ballooned to 5½ points, is tempting fate. A team like Jacksonville, who has nothing to lose and the chance to do damage, could prove to be a fatal blow to the Titans playoff hopes.