The New Orleans Saints come to Nashville on Sunday looking to solidify their playoff standing while the Tennessee Titans are fighting for their postseason chances. The Saints (11-3) are part of a four-way tie for the best record in the NFC meaning these last two games will basically determine much of the seeding for the conference's playoff bracket. The Titans (8-6) are tied with Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot in the AFC but the Steelers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a better record in conference games. With Houston clinching the AFC South on Saturday after beating Tampa Bay, the only way Tennessee can get in the playoffs is as a wild card.
New Orleans celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Super Bowl XLIV victory over Indianapolis on Monday night. The Saints invited members of that team to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to remember their struggle to defeat the Colts in Miami a decade ago. On Monday, New Orleans faced little resistance from a fading Indianapolis team as Drew Brees set more NFL records in a 34-7 rout. Besides passing Peyton Manning for the most touchdown passes in history (541 and counting), Brees also set a new mark for highest completion percentage in a game (min. 20 attempts) by completing 29 of 30 attempts (96.7 percent).
Tennessee didn't have near as much fun at home last week, losing to Houston 24-21. The Titans fell behind 14-0 before halftime and even though they rallied in the second half, they weren't able to make up the deficit. Ryan Succop's 45-yard field goal attempt that was blocked to end Tennessee's first possession (after intercepting Deshaun Watson in the red zone) ended up being a key play and it will be his last kick this season as he was put on injured reserve on Wednesday. The Titans better hope they can fix their quicking woes (see below) now that their margin of error is very small with the Texans clinching the AFC South.
New Orleans at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can anyone among the Titans cover Michael Thomas?
Forgetting about Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson for a second, Thomas has been making a serious case to become the first wide receiver to win the Most Valuable Player Award voted on by the Associated Press. On Monday night, he surpassed the franchise record for receptions in a season (133 and counting). He broke his own record of 125, which he set last year. Thomas needs just 10 more catches in the last two games to tie the all-time single-season mark, which Marvin Harrison set 17 years ago.
With all of those catches, Thomas has produced 1,552 yards, 78 first downs, and eight touchdowns. He leads the league in both receiving yards and first downs (among all players), and is tied for fourth in TD grabs. He's averaging 110.9 receiving yards per game and has gone over 100 in nine contests. Double coverage is pretty much a necessity when defending against Thomas, yet he continues to make plays.
Tennessee is 25th overall in passing defense at 258.1 yards per game allowed. Against wide receivers, the Titans are surrendering 171.4 yards per game (11th-highest total) and 12 touchdown catches (tied for 16th). Overall, they have yielded a total of 22 touchdowns through the air, which puts them in the middle of the pack. Stats aside, Tennessee's defensive backs know they have their work cut out for them on Sunday as Thomas continues to chase history.
2. Can the Saints contain Derrick Henry... if he plays?
Tennessee's late-season surge, during which it has won four out of its past five games, can somewhat be attributed to quarterback Ryan Tannehill's stellar play since replacing Marcus Mariota as the starter. However, it's Henry who has been carrying the load for the Titans the entire season.
He leads the league in carries with 271 and is second only to Nick Chubb in rushing yards with 1,329. Henry also is tied for third with 13 rushing touchdowns and his 61 first downs on the ground are fourth. As Henry goes, by and large, so go the Titans. Tennessee is 5-0 when Henry goes for 100 yards on the ground. In the team's six losses he's averaged 64 rushing yards per game.
Henry has been dealing with a hamstring injury that has limited his practice participation. He's yet to miss a game and had 86 yards on 21 carries last week against Houston, but on Saturday afternoon he was downgraded to Questionable. In addition, the Titans promoted running back Dalyn Dawkins from the practice squad so it's safe to assume Henry's availability for this game is very much in doubt.
Even if he was completely healthy, New Orleans' defense would provide a sturdy test for Henry. The Saints are fourth in the league against the run (90.8 ypg) and have not allowed any player to post more than 83 rushing yards (Carlos Hyde in Week 1) against them. New Orleans also has given up just 10 rushing touchdowns all season. Last week, Indianapolis did manage a score on the ground against the Saints but otherwise finished with 46 yards on 17 carries with a long run of just seven yards.
3. Have the Titans found a solution for their placekicking problems?
Tennessee's kicking situation has been shaky from Week 1 as Ryan Succop started the season on injured reserve because of a knee injury. Cairo Santos got the nod but proceeded to miss five of nine field goals through the team's first five games. He was replaced in Week 6 by Cody Parkey, who made all three of his field goal attempts, including one from 51 yards out. He did miss one of his six extra point attempts and was waived prior to Week 9 as Succop was activated from IR.
However, Succop struggled to regain the form that saw him post an 87 percent success rate on field goals over his first five seasons with the Titans. Instead, he missed all three of his attempts in a 30-20 loss at Carolina in Week 9 and connected on just one of three in the five games that followed. He did go 24-for-25 on PATs but following last week's loss to Houston, Succop went back on IR and Tennessee signed Greg Joseph off of the Panthers' practice squad to replace him.
Joseph went 17-for-20 on field goals and 25-for-29 on PATs for Cleveland last year before the Browns handed the kicking job to Austin Seibert, the rookie fifth-round pick from Oklahoma, during training camp. The Titans are hoping that Joseph can solidify a position that has been problematic for them all season, especially facing a must-win situation.
Thanks to Atlanta's stunning, last-second victory over San Francisco last week, the path to the top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for New Orleans became easier. The Saints just need to win their final two games (Week 17 at Carolina) along with one more loss by Green Bay and then the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC could once again go through the Superdome.
Tennessee must put last week's crushing defeat behind them. Even though Houston has clinched the AFC South the Titans still have a shot at overtaking Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot. But beating a motivated New Orleans team seems like a tough task, even at home.
Prediction: Saints 34, Titans 23
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.