First place in the AFC South is on the line in Nashville on Sunday
Although both the Texans and Titans have matching 8-5 records, Houston holds the lead in the AFC South based on its record within the division (3-1). While Sunday's game at Nissan Stadium will shake up the standings, both teams will get one final crack against one another in just two weeks in the regular-season finale on Dec. 29 in Houston.
The Texans come into Sunday fresh off a smack-in-the-mouth loss against a Broncos team with nothing but pride to play for and a rookie quarterback calling the shots. Drew Lock torched Houston's defense for three first-half touchdown passes, as the Texans let a brilliant opportunity for a first-round playoff home game slip away in a 14-point drubbing.
The Titans, on the other hand, have been handling their business. Once left for dead, Tennessee has reeled off four straight wins and six of seven since benching quarterback Marcus Mariota in favor of Ryan Tannehill. A win on Sunday will put the Titans in sole possession of first place in the AFC South with two weeks left to play.
Houston at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Red-hot Ryan Tannehill
The following sentence is going to be very weird to type into existence: Ryan Tannehill is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week... and rightfully so. Odd, right?
Tannehill's 391 passing yards and three touchdowns at Oakland earned him the honor, but it has been his play the last seven games that's completely turned around the Titans' season.
In his seven starts this year, Tannehill has a 6-1 record, 15 touchdowns, just five interceptions, a 72.7 percent completion rate, and a 121.7 passer rating that is second to only MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson. He is in complete control of a Tennessee offense that has averaged 31.4 points per game under his command — including 37.5 in the last four games — compared to just 16.3 with Marcus Mariota running the show.
This week, Tannehill faces a Texans defense that has been rather poor at stopping opposing passing attacks, ranking 27th in the league in passing yards per game allowed (265.8). Where Tannehill has been extra special is on play-action passes, where he is completing 80 percent of this throws and posting a 143.8 passer rating — something to keep an eye on as the Texans surely will load the box to stop Derrick Henry (more on him in a bit).
2. Texans' slow starts
Head coach Bill O'Brien warned his team after their upset win against New England a few weeks ago — they needed to find a way to start games more efficiently. The first quarter has been Houston's soft spot all season long. Opposing teams have outscored the Texans 65-30 in 13 first quarters this season, bad enough for second-worst in the league behind the comically bad football team that resides in our nation's capital.
Last week against Denver, the Texans' Achilles heel revealed itself in brutal fashion. The Texans punted, fumbled, and punted on their three first-quarter drives, amassing only 101 yards on 22 plays from scrimmage. On the flip side, Denver scored touchdowns on their only two first-quarter possessions, leaving the Texans playing catch-up the rest of the afternoon. O'Brien called last Sunday's first quarter an "avalanche" that the Texans just couldn't stop. With the AFC South on the line, Houston will have to clean it up in the first 15 minutes against Tennessee on Sunday.
3. Derrick Henry running wild
It took a couple of years of being the No. 2 running back on his own team, but now the former Heisman Trophy winner is showing the league just what a beast he is, especially during the Titans' current hot streak. In the last five games, he has posted eight rushing touchdowns and 662 yards on the ground, and he's averaged 149.8 yards per game in his last four.
Henry's 13 rushing touchdowns are tied for tops in the NFL, while his career-high 1,243 yards are second in the league behind Cleveland's Nick Chubb (1,280). This week, Henry faces off against a once-stout Texans run defense that has faded in recent weeks — allowing 166.5 rushing yards a game in their last four contests following a Week 10 bye. Look for Henry to carry another heavy load against Houston, not only to dominate the clock but to set up the play-action pass, where Ryan Tannehill has been thriving.
Just when you think the Texans are about to prove they're one of the AFC's premier teams by thumping the reigning Super Bowl champs, they lay a completely avoidable egg by losing to the five-win Broncos at home. The Texans have been feasting on losing teams this season, going 6-3, but are just 2-2 against teams on the right side of .500. On Sunday, Deshaun Watson and Houston's offense will have to start fast in hostile territory to match a red-hot Titans offense — but it can be done?
Prediction: Texans 24, Titans 22
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.