Thursday Night Football Preview: Can Both Teams Lose?
If I'm being perfectly honest with you, I haven't exactly been looking forward to writing this article. Early in the season I surveyed the Thursday night schedule, scoping out my material for the coming weeks, and this one in particular stood out for its total lack of excitement. Even two months ago, the Jaguars and Titans had already established themselves as two of the NFL's suckiest teams: six weeks in, the Jags were winless, and the Titans were just 2-4.
Flash forward to Week 15, and we're still looking at perhaps the two worst teams in the league whose names don't rhyme with "Sue! Pork? Let's." In fact, let's do away with qualifiers: Jacksonville and Tennessee are the worst two teams in football, full stop. They rank next-to-last and dead last, respectively, in nERD, numberFire's holistic statistic (heh!) that measures expected point differential. Why don't we do a shallow dive into some unit-based stats for both teams? (All rankings are based on Net Expected Points, or NEP.)
Jacksonville's offense: 29th in rushing, 32nd in passing, 32nd overall.
Tennessee's offense: 18th in rushing, 29th in passing, 29th overall.
Jacksonville's defense: 18th against the rush, 15th against the pass, 15th overall.
Tennessee's defense: 29th against the rush, 26th against the pass, 29th overall.
The '72 Dolphins, they ain't.
None of these numbers should be a surprise to you, if you've been following any football this year, but it is eye-opening to see them all gathered in one place. Jacksonville's defense has been the one redeeming factor for the team, not because they've been excellent but because they haven't been a complete dumpster fire.
That's in direct opposition to their offense, led by rookie Blake Bortles. When Bortles took over the helm for Jacksonville, there was much hope that he'd be the answer the Jaguars have been looking for essentially since the departure of Mark Brunell. A little of that hope is still hanging on, but Bortles quickly squashed any idea that his rookie season was going to be any sort of step forward for him or for the Jags. He ranks dead last in the NFL in Passing NEP, with nearly 40 expected points separating him and the next-worst quarterback, Robert Griffin III. (For reference, you need to go through over 30 more quarterbacks before you find the guy who's 40 expected points better than RGIII.) There was a time when Bortles looked like he could be the next Big Ben, but it's going to be a long road for him after such a disastrous rookie season.
The Titans, meanwhile, have rested their hopes on Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback. He's got some decent weapons in Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker, I suppose, but Wright's been struggling with an injury and Walker's not exactly a top-tier tight end.
This is what we're watching on Thursday night.
But keeping all that in mind, you're here because you want to know who's going to win this terrible, terrible train wreck of a football game. And though it may be the least exciting football game ever (?) played, I don't think we've seen a matchup anywhere near this even on Thursday night all season. (Remember the halcyon days, when every Thursday game was an awful blowout? Sigh.) I can't really ask which one of these teams will win, but...who will accidentally back into not losing?
The Case for Jacksonville
Our strongest predictor game (a 91.15% match!) is one of the worst games I've ever seen show up in our strongest predictors, which makes a ton of sense. It was a contest between the Cardinals and Panthers back in 2010, just after the Cards lost the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner and then slipped into a brief Dark Age, and just before the Panthers were revitalized by the arrival of Cam Newton. Carolina used this game to break a nine-game losing streak and raise their record to a sterling 2-12, while Arizona dropped to 4-10. The score was 19-12, Panthers, and it was a typically ugly game from both teams; both were led by rookie quarterbacks in Jimmy Clausen and John Skelton, which may be the greatest similarity to our game tonight. Neither signal-caller cracked 200 yards, and while Clausen got the W and a solid 107.6 passer rating, the team relied mostly on its run game to do damage (Jonathan Stewart picked up 137 yards on 27 carries).
It's hard to say whether the Jaguars' running backs will get the kind of volume Stewart did or be able to do with it what he did, considering that Denard Robinson is out. Instead, the Jaguars will turn to deposed starter, former Viking, and one-time Heisman runner-up Tobinbo Gunnar Gerhart (I can't express this clearly enough: unless someone has managed to slip it past the normally fierce watchdogs of Wikipedia, that is his real name), who was one of the least effective rushers in the league during the first half of the season and lost the starting job as a result. Could we see an expanded supporting role for Storm Johnson, the other Jacksonville running back with a ridiculous name? It wouldn't surprise me. It's clear, though, based on this predictor game, that the best Blake Bortles can hope for is to diminish the screw-ups: something like Clausen's 13-of-19 for 141 yards and a score would certainly be a bonus.
The Case for Tennessee
Our second-strongest predictor game (90.35%) is another terrible contest between two terrible teams, naturally: this time, a 2007 meeting between the 1-8 Rams and the 2-7 49ers. Woof. Much like the Cards-Panthers game above, this one featured a single touchdown: a three-yard pass from Marc Bulger to Torry Holt.
Unlike the game above, though, this one featured a lot more passing. Between them, quarterbacks Bulger and Trent Dilfer (who feels like he's been out of the league for at least a decade, but apparently was starting in 2007) threw a combined 74 passes. Some interesting stats: Bulger was sacked 6 times for 50 yards, which means that the Rams' total team passing yards amounted to 105. Dilfer completed less than half of his passes and threw two interceptions. Frank Gore rushed for just over 2 yards a carry on 15 totes. The leading receiver for St. Louis was Torry Holt, with 55 yards. Do you mind if I just skip ahead? I'm getting depressed.
Somehow, despite the utter incompetency of their passing game, the Rams won this one, 13-9. It may be because Steven Jackson was able to manage a solid 92 yards on 23 carries (a perfect 4.0 YPC), but it's more likely because the Rams didn't turn the ball over a single time, while the 49ers coughed it up twice. As bad as the Titans' defense is, they should be able to wreak at least a modicum of havoc on the barren wasteland of the Jaguars' offense. Do Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene have it in them to carry the team to a victory, especially considering that the Jaguars' rushing defense is comparably stout? Normally, I'd say no, but honestly, when a game features so much bad, somebody's going to do something, right? If Tennessee can force Jacksonville (and in particular Bortles) to make mistakes, they should be able to string together enough points here and there to come away with a win.
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