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Thursday Night Football Preview: Time to Remember the Titans?

With the AFC South up for grabs, who will emerge from the crowd?

With the Jaguars and Titans meeting for Thursday Night Football this week, the Indianapolis Colts will need to find a way to hold off whoever emerges from this contest in a tight race for the AFC South division title.

And that right there sits right atop the list of things I didn't think I'd be saying during the 2015 season.

But with Jacksonville and Tennessee sporting records of 3-6 and 4-5, respectively, this is more an indictment of how bad the Luck-less Colts have been than it is an indication of how well either of these division rivals have fared.

Regardless of how we got to this situation, the winner of this Thursday's matchup between the Titans and Jaguars will find themselves in the driver's seat to overthrow the Colts for the division title for just the fifth time in the last 14 seasons.

So what can we expect each team to do with such a rare opportunity?

The Pre-Game Rundown

Just like their division, the Jaguars have been full of surprises this season. Blake Bortles has rebounded from a historically bad rookie season in which he averaged -0.18 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our signature metric here at numberFire. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation you receive a positive NEP and a negative score when you do the opposite.

So in other words, every time Bortles dropped back to pass he was decreasing his team's chances of scoring. While his 0.03 Passing NEP per drop back this year ranks him just 25th in efficiency among all quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs, it's at least a step in the right direction.

The emergence of the two Allens in the wide receiver department have certainly helped Bortles' cause. Allen Robinson leads the team in receiving with 45 receptions for 758 yards and 7 touchdowns through the first nine games of the season.

Hot on his heels is a tough as nails Allen Hurns that not only has amassed 697 yards and 7 touchdowns (one in each of the last seven games) on 41 receptions, but he's also shown a remarkable efficiency with his looks. His 1.02 Reception NEP per target is the second-best mark among all wideouts with at least 40 targets on the year. And despite the short week and an abdominal injury that may require sports hernia surgery after the season ends, Hurns still underwent a full practice on Tuesday and is fully expected to suit up on Thursday.

Bortles' newfound ability to move the ball through the air has also opened up some breathing room for rookie T.J. Yeldon to get the sticks moving in the ground game. However, with Yeldon only recently shedding his walking boot and his relative inefficiency this season -- he owns a below average -0.08 Rushing NEP per attempt in his rookie season -- there are still questions on how effective of a back Yeldon can be against the Titans this week.

As would be expected for any rookie, Marcus Mariota has had an up and down first season in the NFL, absolutely obliterating poor defenses and struggling against good ones. In five games against pass defenses ranked in the bottom-12 according to our NEP metrics, Mariota is averaging 284.6 yards, 2.6 touchdowns, and 0.8 interceptions per game. But in his two games top-seven ranked teams -- Buffalo (7th-ranked) and Carolina (2nd) -- Mariota is averaging just 186 yards with no touchdowns and one interception per game.

Even with his Jekyll and Hyde performances, Mariota's numbers are impressive considering what little help he's had in the passing game.

While Delanie Walker has held his own with a 0.79 Reception NEP per target that ranks him as the seventh most efficient tight end with at least 30 targets this season, the second-leading receiver on this team, Kendall Wright, has disappointed with his constant injuries (he's missed two games this season already) and inefficiency (his own a below-average 0.57 Reception NEP per target).

And while Dorial Green-Beckham is starting to emerge as a receiving option on this team, his inconsistency as a rookie has caused some growing pains alongside his rookie quarterback.

In the running game, the Titans have moved on from 2014 second-round bust Bishop Sankey. While the team has anoinited Antonio Andrews as their lead back for now, with the second-year back sporting a 4.83 40-yard dash time and a terribly inefficient -0.08 Rushing NEP per attempt, the team is hoping that rookie David Cobb can overcome his injuries and conditioning issues to unseat Andrews for the number one job on the team.

The Titans' Game Script

Remember what we said earlier about Mariota tearing up bad pass defenses? Well, it doesn't get much better for the rookie this Thursday as he goes up against the Jaguars 30th-ranked pass defense according to our Adjusted  Defensive NEP metrics.

But with Wright expected to miss this contest as he continues to struggle with his MCL injury, if Mariota hopes to exploit the Jags suspect secondary, he's going to need Green-Beckham to step up like he did against the Saints two weeks ago when the rookie wideout caught 5 of 10 targets for 77 yards.

If the passing game can't get going against Jacksonville, the offense may be in for a long day as they won't find it any easier moving the ball against the Jaguars on the ground. Andrews and company will go head to head with a Jaguars defense that ranks seventh in the league against the run according to our schedule-adjusted metrics. And with Andrews being less than spectacular in the efficiency department, the likelihood of the young tailback overcoming this tough matchup on Thursday will be slim to none.

The Jaguars' Game Script

Bortles, Robinson, and Hurns will look to get the ball moving on a Titans pass defense that ranks just 19th this season according to our advanced metrics.

After Robinson managed to haul in 6 of 11 targets for 121 yards in Week 9 despite being on Revis Island, it seems as though the only person that can stop the budding star wideout is himself. With injuries to cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox, Robinson should once again find success against this Titans secondary.

For Hurns, despite his injury, the other Allen on this team will look to keep his receiving touchdown streak alive for an eighth consecutive game. And with the Titans giving up a receiving touchdown to eight different receivers on the season, I like his chances.

Yeldon also has a nice matchup against a Titans run defense that ranks 24th in the league. However, at presumably less than full strength due to a recent foot injury and with matchups to exploit in the passing game, the rookie tailback will likely not be leaned on in this contest as the Jaguars take to the air.

Fantasy Football Implications

As we've just discussed, Bortles, Robinson, and Hurns are all must plays in a plus-matchup this Thursday.

And if for some reason Hurns is more hurt by his abdominal injury then he's letting on or he aggravates it, Julius Thomas could also make for a sneaky play at the tight end position. While he's disappointed for the most part since returning from injury, he does get a Titans defense surrendering the sixth most points to tight ends this year.

Despite the inefficiency of the Titans against the run, the fact that they also surrender the sixth least points to the running back position combined with Yeldon's foot injury makes him a risky play in this contest. If you have alternative options to the rookie, consider using them instead.

Both start-worthy options this week, Mariota and Walker face a Jaguars defense giving up the 8th and 12th most points to the quarterback and tight end position, respectively. Expect the rookie to look to his security blanket early and often as they try to keep up with the Jaguars offense.

Beyond these two, however, there are few attractive options in this contest. If you're desperate, you could consider starting Green-Beckham with Wright out, but he's just as likely to get 10 targets in this game as he is to garner one.

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