Former Dallas Cowboys’ backup quarterback Brandon Weeden was being funny when he responded to a question about the possibility of filling for Tony Romo when he said, “God forbid I am forced to play.”
That was in August, during training camp, before Weeden actually did play for an injured Romo, and before Weeden was released by the Cowboys and signed by the Houston Texans. Now, Weeden is the man in charge of securing the Texans’ playoff hopes after filling for an injured T.J. Yates — who was filling for an injured Brian Hoyer. Funny game that American football.
After starting the season 2-5 and playing four different quarterbacks, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has somehow, miraculously steered his football team to the AFC South lead with two divisional games remaining. The division is the Texans’ to win… or lose, and the only teams standing in their way are the Titans on Sunday and the Jaguars next week.
The Titans will be without their rookie standout quarterback Marcus Mariota after he suffered an MCL sprain last week — the second time Mariota has been sidelined with a knee injury in his inaugural season.
With or without Mariota, the Titans have been arguably the worst team in the NFL for the last two seasons, and really show no signs of improvement. Team ownership is nowhere to be found, the front office seems to be inept, and the coaching staff has been fluid for three seasons. In short: the Titans are a dumpster fire who very well could have the first pick in next spring’s draft for the second year in a row.
With Mariota in sweats and a headset on Sunday, interim head coach Mike Mularkey will call on second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger to lead his team against the resurgent Texans.
Houston at Tennessee
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Tennessee +4
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
The Titans have next to nothing to play for in 2015 — as playing for pride went out the window two weeks ago with a 30-8 lifeless loss to the Jets. But if there is one Titan that can use the final two weeks to showcase himself, it’s starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Scouts rave about Mettenberger’s raw talent and arm strength, but his on-field decision-making and too frequent displays of immaturity have cost him. These next two weeks Mettenberger faces two defenses in the Texans and Colts that will assuredly allow him to put up some pretty passing numbers, a perfect opportunity for him to generate offseason interest from what seems like a countless number of teams in desperate need of reliable signal-callers.
Leading the Texans’ huddle will be 31-year old Brandon Weeden, who has played for the only two teams this season that have used four different quarterbacks. In training camp Brian Hoyer was named the starter over Ryan Mallett, but inconsistent play and injuries benched Hoyer in favor of Mallet — who later was benched, and then ultimately cut. With Hoyer out (again) after regaining the starting role, in stepped perennial backup T.J. Yates, who tore his ACL last week against the Colts. Now, it’s up to Weeden to lead the Texans to an improbable AFC South title with a win today. Luckily, Weeden has one of the best wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins to target against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
2. Which Texans D Shows Up?
The Texans were supposed to have the cream of NFL defenses this season, led by J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and a healthy Jadeveon Clowney. Watt and Cushing have played like Pro Bowlers, as Cushing leads the team in tackles and Watt is top five in the league in sacks. But Clowney and the rest of the defense have been inconsistent. In the Texans’ seven wins, the defense only allowed 10.5 points per game. In their seven losses, that numbers soars to more than 32 per game.
Now, in the final two weeks of the season, with a backup quarterback leading the offense is when O’Brien needs his defense to be at its best, not only getting stops, but also making big plays and turning points into turnovers. Watt has a history of roughing up Mettenberger, a trend that must continue if the Texans plan on hosting a playoff game in three weeks.
3. Titans’ Offensive Woes
The Titans’ offense has been, to put it gently, inept in 2015. Marcus Mariota showed flashes of brilliance throughout his rookie tenure not only throwing but also running the ball, as he is second on the team in rushing. Without Mariota in the lineup Sunday, the Titans are going to have to establish a running game, something they have failed to do all season. Running back Dexter McCluster (who is on injured reserve) has been improperly used and underperformed since being brought in last season as a free agent, and last year’s second-round pick Bishop Sankey has been a pure bust.
Second-year back Antonio Andrews is the team’s leading rusher and will continue to carry the load the rest of the way. But Andrews’ greatest disadvantage is an offensive line in front of him that can’t seem to, well, block.
The lone bright spot in the Titans’ offense has been tight end Delanie Walker. Mettenberger’s first job is to get Walker the ball as much as possible, if only to open up the rest of the passing game for wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and possibly Kendall Wright. But Mettenberger will surely be limited behind a Titans’ offensive line that has been nothing short of a disaster this season.
With a win in Nashville on Sunday, the Texans are almost assured the AFC South title and the right to host a playoff game in a few weeks. This is a game that the Texans must figure out a way to win, even with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. With so much on the line, look for the Texans’ defense to attack the line of scrimmage relentlessly, forcing Zach Mettenberger into erratic passing decisions.
Prediction: Texans 20, Titans 10
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.