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The NFL’s worst rivalry? Jaguars-Titans is a little more complex than that

The 2016 version of the Jaguars-Titans rivalry is a far cry from the intense games with playoff implications in the late '90s and early 2000s. But chances are, fans won't be mocking the rivalry for much longer, as the teams look to return to prominence.

It wasn’t always like this.

Derrick Mason remembers the Lamar Hunt Trophy ceremony in the middle of Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium on Jan. 23, 2000, after his free kick return touchdown helped the Titans stun the top-seeded Jaguars 33–14 in the AFC Championship Game. In the years leading up to that meeting, Tennessee and Jacksonville had found early success in their fledgling NFL markets and jockeyed for position in the old AFC Central, but the stakes had never remotely approached a trip to the Super Bowl. The teams combined to go 27–5 in the ’99 regular season, a year that still holds up as the closest either franchise has come to winning it all. Mason rattles off the Pro Bowl-caliber players on the field that day: Eddie George and Fred Taylor; Steve McNair and Mark Brunell; Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Jevon Kearse.

“With those guys, the rivalry was intense,” Mason says. “When [Jacksonville and Tennessee] were playing, it meant something. It meant someone was going to take over first place, someone was going to get that No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Now it means who’s fighting for last place in the conference.”

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There was a time when Jaguars fans could tolerate a loss to any team, as long as it wasn’t the Titans. That’s the message Rashean Mathis received upon arriving in Jacksonville as a rookie in 2003, when many of the stars of those early battles still fueled the rivalry. On the field, Mathis’s main concern was George, who was on his way to one final 1,000-rushing-yard season in Tennessee: “I just made sure that [Jaguars safety] Donovin Darius knew that I was a cornerback, and I didn’t want to tackle [George] by myself.”

Keep all that in mind as the Titans and Jaguars meet for the first time this season on Thursday night, the latest chapter in what has become the NFL’s most awkward annual tradition: a prime-time clash between the two least successful teams of the league’s least competitive division over the past decade.

Neither team has reached the playoffs since the 2008 season, and the two franchises are a combined 3–8 in postseason play in the 14 years since the AFC South was created out of the NFL’s last round of realignment. Peyton Manning and the Colts lorded over that division from its inception in 2002, drawing the singular focus of the teams they torched year after year and forcing all other division rivalries onto the back burner. When that era ended, the Texans’ rise to quasi-relevance added some much-needed juice to dates with the NFL’s youngest franchise.

That left Titans–Jaguars to idle and eventually drift into irrelevance entirely. As the matchup became a staple of Thursday Night Football in the past two years, it once again drew national buzz, but for the wrong reasons: The teams’ Week 16 meeting in December 2014, a game between a pair of 2–12 squads with almost nothing but draft position on the line, chummed the waters for TNF’s biggest critics who believe the league’s overexposure on national television has diluted the standards for quality of play.

The date of the teams’ showcase game has been moved up a month in the schedule each year since 2014, and this season that decision may bring some unforeseen, unintended consequences. Television ratings are down across the board for even the league’s highly anticipated matchups, and in the wake of an unsightly 6–6 tie on Sunday night in Arizona and an anticlimactic beatdown Monday night in Denver, Thursday’s game is expected to only add to the league’s negative momentum in prime time this month, even though both teams are squarely in the hunt for the wide-open AFC South.

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“The schedule is created to encompass all 256 regular season games and not a particular game window,” an NFL spokesman said. “We put together a schedule that is exciting for fans and is fair for all 32 clubs and our network partners. By league policy, every team plays one short-week Thursday game. We tend to make these divisional games due to travel consideration and also familiarity with the opponent.”

In support of the NFL’s reasoning, it may prove to be no coincidence that the two non-divisional Thursday games so far this season, in which travel considerations and opponent familiarity took a backseat to scheduling logistics, turned out to be blowouts: The Patriots shut out Houston at home to begin Week 3, and the following week the Bengals strangled the Dolphins in one of the sloppiest games of the year. At the same time, many of the league’s other divisions have been granted more variety on Thursday nights to avoid predictable matchups and redundant storylines.

“It’s just unfortunate that both teams have been so bad for the last decade,” Mason says. “So when they play each other now, it’s almost as if the NFL is trying to get two teams out of the way at one time because these Thursday night games are not good anyway.”

Yet on the inside, Jaguars-Titans has its defenders.

“I’m not going to say it’s really hatred, as far as like an Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but they don’t like each other, no form or fashion,” Jaguars defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks says. “I don’t think one team would root for the other team if they needed that team to win a game to boost their spot in the playoff.”

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Marks should know—he was drafted by the Titans in 2009 and signed with Jacksonville in 2013. He also produced the most memorable moment of 2014’s infamous 2–12 showdown, when his game-ending sack of Charlie Whitehurst brought him to 8.5 sacks on the season, activating a $600,000 bonus in his contract.

Emotions and performance incentives aside, the rivalry may soon turn around if both teams find a way to consistently contend. If not for a pair of deflating home losses in Week 7, both teams would have entered Thursday’s meeting at .500 or better—that’s only been the case twice in the past 10 years (excluding Week 1 meetings). What’s more, neither the Colts nor Texans appear primed to put first place out of reach down the stretch.

“In our division over the last few years, it’s kind of been a bunch-up of teams,” Titans cornerback Jason McCourty says. “This year, right now, everybody’s kind of at the same point, and the division can still go either way, so these games are huge.”

Huge may be a relative term, but for a rivalry that has been picked on and made fun of in recent years—and for the players involved, whose careers are too short to play at anything less than full tilt each game, no matter what the stakes may be—it’s progress.

“When there’s no football on, people say it’s boring and they ain’t got nothing to do,” Marks says. “That’s the most amazing thing about football. No matter when it comes on, no matter where you at, if a game is on, it’s going to be on that TV. People are going to watch it. Maybe you don’t care about it, but it’s still football. … As a player, it don’t matter if 10 million people watch it or if it’s 12 people watching it.”