The Jacksonville Jaguars have been talking among themselves all week about the awful feeling they had a month ago after losing to the Tennessee Titans for the second time this season.
Their coach, Tom Coughlin, hasn't had to talk much about it, because his players all say no one has forgotten the 41-14 pounding they absorbed in a game they had been pointing toward for weeks.
Sunday, the Jaguars will be thinking a lot about redemption when they play the Titans in the AFC championship game at Alltel Stadium. The winner advances to Super Bowl XXXIV Jan. 30 against the St. Louis Rams or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It certainly is a motivating tool for us knowing that they've had our number," said Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. ". . . Guys will get pretty fired up when you get beaten twice. I've seen it this week. It's the best week of preparation we've had all year."
Said Jaguars safety Carnell Lake: "Anyone on this team who has a competitive bone in his body was embarrassed by that loss in Tennessee."
Despite their lack of success against Tennessee, the Jaguars (15-2) are seven-point favorites Sunday. They are coming off a 62-7 dismantling of the Miami Dolphins and seeking the first Super Bowl appearance of the franchise's five-year history.
The Titans (15-3) have had momentum-building, albeit somewhat fortunate, playoff victories over the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts, and a victory today also would be a first for a franchise that began playing in Houston in the old AFL in 1960 and moved to Tennessee three years ago.
Conventional wisdom is that it is difficult for one team to beat another three times in a season. A third-game matchup has occurred 22 times in NFL history, and the 2-0 team has made it three straight 13 times.
However, when going on the road for the third game, the 2-0 team has lost all four times.
The Titans have not exactly steam-rolled their way into this game. They needed a miracle kickoff return for a touchdown in the final 16 seconds to beat Buffalo, then benefited from an instant-replay reversal last week that significantly shortened an apparent 87-yard punt return by the Colts, whose returner was ruled to have stepped out of bounds.
Friday, Tennessee starting quarterback Steve McNair did not practice because of a sore big toe on his left foot, and he was listed as questionable. He came to a news conference Friday evening wearing a protective boot he has used on and off the past five weeks, but Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said McNair will start, and "we don't anticipate any problems."
The toe is "pretty swollen," McNair said, "but come Sunday, I don't think it's going to be bad."
The Jaguars can't imagine McNair will throw for five touchdown passes, as he did the last time the teams played, Dec. 26. They also insist they have learned from their mistakes against the Titans. They have committed a total of five turnovers against Tennessee this season, and Coughlin wants them eliminated.
The Titans pounded the Jaguars for 148 yards rushing in the team's past game, 102 from Eddie George, the only running back to gain more than 100 yards against Jacksonville this season.
As for McNair, nine of his 23 completions against the Jaguars that day went to former Maryland tight end Frank Wycheck, the Titans' leading receiver for the fourth consecutive year--and someone who is particularly adept at making third-down conversions.
"We've been trying to figure it out," Lake said of the Titans' offensive success that day. "In that game, McNair was able to buy time for his receivers. On a touchdown pass to his tight end, the guy was uncovered.
"We have to keep everyone in our sights. And with him being able to scramble around, receivers found a way to the open pockets on the field."
Jacksonville quarterback Brunell sprained his left knee against Tennessee last month and was not 100 percent last week against the Dolphins, even though he did lead his team to 38 consecutive points before departing early in the second quarter.
"The knee is much stronger than a week ago," Brunell said Friday. "It feels better now than it did on Wednesday. I have no problems, and I have no concerns."
Brunell, who again will wear braces on both knees, has a variety of options, most notably explosive running back Fred Taylor and wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
Taylor, healthy after a season of hamstring problems, had a 90-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins and gained 135 yards in the first half.
"Fred being 100 percent makes all the difference in the world," Brunell said.
The Jaguars would seem to have the better defense. They were ranked fourth in the NFL overall, fourth against the rush and sixth against the pass. Tennessee is 17th overall in defense, 10th against the run and 25th against the pass.
If Jacksonville's offensive line can keep Titans rookie sensation Jevon Kearse (14 1/2 sacks) away from Brunell, the Jaguars should be able to exploit the Titans' secondary.
"Our team was not happy with the way we performed against them the last time," Coughlin said. "We'd like to have the opportunity to do something about it. I've talked to this team about a wonderful opportunity at home. We've showed them the way we lost and tried to put in their mind the ways we can win."