The game plan is simple for the Tennessee Titans: beat the Houston Texans on Sunday or go home... or lose and hope three other teams do the same. But for dramatic purposes, we’ll stay with — win or go home! After two straight losses (Texans, Saints), the Titans (8-7) still find themselves in control of their own destiny and on the brink of their fourth straight 9-7 season. (Hey, they may be marginal, but at least they’re consistent about it.) If Tennessee wants to make the postseason, they’re going to need a more balanced effort from their offense this Sunday than what they put together last week against New Orleans. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, the Titans were outscored 38-14 by the Saints. The return of 1,300-yard rusher Derrick Henry should help in that endeavor.
The Texans (10-5) locked up their second consecutive AFC South title (and fourth in five years) by way of an incredibly sloppy 23-20 win over Tampa Bay last Saturday. Houston is currently locked into the fourth seed in the AFC, but with a win on Sunday in accordance with a Kansas City home loss to the Chargers earlier in the day, the Texans would jump the Chiefs to claim the third seed. With a playoff spot and a division title in hand no one could fault Bill O’Brien for resting a healthy portion of his starters on Sunday, but in the words of the great Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”
Tennessee at Houston
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 29 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Houston’s motivation
Mike Vrabel and the Titans don’t have a choice — it’s all hands on deck. And for Bill O’Brien, it wasn’t a very hard decision either — his starters would be on the field and taking a majority of snaps on Sunday against the Titans, even with a division championship banner ready to be hung from the rafters. But even if the starters take the field after the coin toss on Sunday, the question remains: How long will they play — especially Deshaun Watson, who spent time in the medical tent in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against Tampa Bay?
The decision will ultimately be O’Brien’s but the call will be greatly influenced by two teams that won’t be playing in Houston on Sunday, but the Chiefs and Chargers in Kansas City, who kick things off at 1 p.m. ET. If the Chiefs win, they keep the No. 3 seed no matter what happens in Houston. So then, what is the motivation for the Texans knowing they are the No. 4 seed by the time their game kicks off at 4:25 p.m., especially against a team they might face for a third time should they meet again in the playoffs?
2. Easier path for the Titans?
It’s not very often that a team can lose games in Weeks 15 and 16 and still control their playoff fate, yet here are the Titans doing just that. Considering their two-game skid, the Titans are kind of in a best-case scenario situation: win and you’re in against a familiar Texans team that very likely won’t have a ton of motivation and may not even play all of its starters. All things considered, that’s not too shabby if you’re a Titans fan.
Also, considering the way Tennessee’s offense has been playing under Ryan Tannehill, the Titans have to like their chances against a defense that has fallen off since the middle of the season. Since Tannehill took over nine weeks ago, he’s led the NFL in quarterback rating (116.5), yards per passing attempt (9.6), and yards per completion (13.5), while throwing 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The return of Derrick Henry from a hamstring injury should also help balance out an offense that struggled to run the ball last week against New Orleans. Tennessee managed just 3.6 yards per carry with Henry on the sidelines.
3. Which Houston offense shows up?
Let’s assume for a second that the Texans will play Sunday’s game at full-tilt with all their starters. Houston has to find a way to get its offense back in rhythm before the playoffs start next weekend. Last week’s performance against Tampa Bay was a perfect example of Houston’s Jekyll-and-Hyde offense. Sure the Texans won the game, but it wasn’t due to their offense. Watson completed 19 of his 32 passes for 184 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. The running game was almost non-existent, totaling 68 yards on the ground with only five rushing first downs. As a whole, Houston went 4-for-14 on third down, totaled 229 yards, and averaged 3.6 yards per play. And with receiver Will Fuller already being ruled out, it’s logical to think that Houston will go into Sunday’s matchup with a rather conservative approach on offense.
The Titans have struggled against teams with winning records all season long, posting a 1-3 mark against playoff-bound squads. But throw out that stat, and throw out the game these two teams played against one another just two weeks ago. The Titans are a desperate team that is getting healthy with the return of Henry to the lineup while the Texans are caught between resting their star players and trying to find their rhythm going into the postseason. I like the Titans to keep their 9-7 streak going and secure their spot for Wild Card Weekend.
Prediction: Titans 26, Texans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.