By David McDonnell
It’s been a very strange week in the NFL on the back of Damar Hamlin’s injury and most everyone who was watching on Monday Night Football would have been in some way affected by how the events surrounding his cardiac arrest played out.
It is wonderful that he is alive with all his faculties intact and also to hear that he talked with his Bills teammates over the last 24 hours.
There has been a lot to reflect and learn from this near death experience and in my opinion, the most important is that every sporting organisation and club in every sport has immediate access to a defibrillator and have people trained and ready to put CPR into practice in an emergency.
Such foresight saved Damar Hamlin’s life this week.
It also brought home on Monday Night just how little importance football can seem when someone’s life hangs in the balance and I am glad that the NFL decided not to refix this game.
But let’s get back to talking football because it certainly has its place. Football is a game we love to watch, discuss and over-analyse and offers escapism from the pressures and obstacles that can be everyday life for many people. It adds meaning to our passions and colour to our dreams.
Titans @ Jaguars
This is an in-and-win game for both sides tonight (kick-off: 1.15am) with the winner hosting a playoff game in seven days’ time.
Let’s start with the Titans who had a four game lead in the division in November with a record of 7-3, before losing six games on the bounce.
Six weeks ago, they boasted one of the most physical defensive lines in football and on offence had the best running back in football in Derek Henry and a play action specialist quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who would throw some deep shots down the field with relative success.
So what has happened?
Ultimately, a one-dimensional team picked up a few injuries and they have not been able to adjust.
The injury to Tannehill has been significant as his replacement Malik Willis has not been accurate throwing the ball. The rookie Willis is a threat running with the ball and on option plays, but without the consistent threat of hurting teams with his arm, teams can pack the box more to better curb the influence of Henry.
The Titans recruited QB Joshua Dobbs from the waiver wire three weeks ago after he was let go from the Browns once Deshaun Watson returned from suspension. Dobbs will start tonight but he is also without a top receiving talent on the roster and the general manager Jon Robinson lost his job for deciding to trade AJ Brown to the Eagles, a move that confounded most analysts during the draft last April. That AJ Brown has become everything to Philly that is missing in Tennessee, Robinson can have little complaints.
The Titans defence has been laid low with a lot of injuries with the loss of Zach Cummingham, David Long Jr, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree all at linebacker has been significant to what had been a very tough defence to play against.
It has left Tennessee with a banged up defence and a one dimensional offence and their hopes tonight will rest on the shoulders of Derek Henry. If he can be a dominant influence on this game, then the Titans have a chance.
The Jaguars have had an almost opposite route to get to this must-win contest.
They were very inconsistent for most of the season but the turning point for me was in Week 12 when they beat the Ravens. In that game Trevor Laurence came of age and led an impressive two minute drill which finished with a Marvin Jones touchdown and he then found Zay Jones for the win with the two-point conversion.
After that game winning drive, Laurence’s confidence at the QB position has been tangible and he is leading his team in much the same way he did at Clemson. Just as significant is that his teammates have rowed in behind him and this looks like the start of some memorable years to come in Jacksonville.
Laurence isn’t short of passing options either. He has the safety blanket of his Clemson running back in Travis Eteinne on passing downs and has struck up a great relationship with Evan Engram at tight end. Earlier in the season he would routinely find Christian Kirk but most recently his favourite target has become Zay Jones.
They have a strong offensive line, especially on the right side with Jawaan Taylor and Brandon Scherff and an excellent running back in Etienne.
The Jaguars defence is also playing well. Josh Allen and Trevon Walker give them pass rushing options from the edge and there is a terrific partnership at safety between Andre Cisco and Rayshawn Jenkins, while Tysom Campbell has done well in pass defence.
Against the Titans I expect Jenkins and Cisco will drop down to the box, especially if Dobbs can’t get the Jags to respect the passing game.
With the prime time audience, this is the most important game in Duval County since the Jags lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game in January 2018 and I am expecting Laurnece to deliver a win for the home side.
The Titans certainly have a puncher’s chance with Derek Henry but outside of that, I can’t see how they will win this contest.
In the other Saturday Night game (9.30pm GMT), we have the Chiefs playing a divisional matchup against the Raiders.
If the Chiefs win they will get a bye from playing wildcard weekend but it’s likely that any appearance in an AFC championship game will be played at a neutral venue after a vote by the NFL owners yesterday.
From the Raiders point of view, Jared Stidham has the chance to further his case to be the starting QB in Las Vegas next season, but my intuition tells me that Josh McDaniels will be bringing in a new player under centre in the off-season.
And that player could be Tom Brady.