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Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans Prediction and Preview

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Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans Prediction and Preview

Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans Prediction and Preview

For a second straight year, the Tennessee Titans wrap up the regular season with a visit to the Houston Texans and their playoff destination dangling in the balance.

This marks the fourth straight season the Titans face a win-and-in scenario in their regular-season finale. Last season, Derrick Henry ran all over the Texans in Week 17 en route to his first NFL rushing title and a Titans playoff berth. Fast-forward a year and Tennessee is once again knocking on the door of a postseason appearance and Henry is yet again leading the league in rushing.

A win on Sunday would give the Titans (10-5) their first AFC South crown since 2008 when then 36-year-old Kerry Collins' 12 touchdown passes were apparently good enough to make a Pro Bowl and then-19-year-old Jake Rose was getting kicked out of Tuscaloosa frat parties for not wearing a pastel-colored polo. My how things change.

There is nothing on the line for the Texans (4-11) in Sunday's showdown, except for pride and the sweet relief of knowing that their horrid season is just about over. Houston's defense is awful, the Texans don't have a full-time head coach or general manager, they have no running game, they have no first- or second-round picks in the upcoming draft, they traded away a generational talent in DeAndre Hopkins, and their leading receiver this season was suspended for failing a PED test. Not great, Bob.

The one bright spot to keep Texans fans optimistic has been the solidification of Deshaun Watson as an absolute superstar. Watson and the Texans will try and play spoiler on Sunday in their home and regular-season finale, trying to end a terrible season on a high note as they ride into the next era of Houston Texans football.

Tennessee at Houston

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 4:25 p.m. ET

TV: CBS

Spread: Titans -7.5

Three Things to Watch

1. King Henry

After being held in check in last Sunday night's loss to Green Bay (23 carries, 98 yards), at least by his standards, Derrick Henry is looking to break out and crown himself the back-to-back NFL rushing king. Henry is currently 220 yards ahead of Minnesota's Dalvin Cook for the league's rushing title, and with Cook not playing on Sunday following the unexpected death of his father; it seems the only question is whether or not Henry will hit 2,000 yards. He'll need 223 to get there.

The key to slowing Henry — because there is no stopping him — is preventing the knockout run. Of course, that's much easier said than done as he leads the league in runs of 20-plus yards with 13. But against the Packers, his longest run was just 12 yards thanks to great gap discipline by the Green Bay front seven.

In his last two outings against Houston, Henry has exploited the Texans' gap discipline. He has 475 total yards, five touchdowns, and nine runs of at least 10 yards in those wins. In last year's regular-season finale, Henry rushed for 211 yards and three scores against the Texans. In Week 6 of this year, he posted 212 yards at 9.6 yards a clip to go with two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime. The other score was on a 94-yard gallop.

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If the Texans have any chance to win on Sunday, their defense will have to play their best game of the season and not like the unit that has given up the second-most rushing yards (2,276) this year and the most yards per carry (5.0).

2. Deshaun Watson, superstar

If 2020 has proven anything, it's that Watson is worth every penny of the massive, four-year contract extension he signed prior to the season. Watson has been brilliant this year, setting career highs for touchdown passes (30), passing yards (4,458), yards per attempt (8.8), and yards per completion (12.6) while throwing the fewest inceptions in his career (6).

What's more amazing is that Watson has performed so well while having little to no help from the weapons around him. The Texans rank 30th in the league in rushing with David Johnson's team-leading 607 yards just 132 ahead of the No. 2 rusher – Watson. Star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was infamously traded to Arizona before the season started. All he's done is continue to be one of the best playmakers in the game, ranking in the top five in every major receiving category. And for the last four games, Watson has been without this season's favorite target, wideout Will Fuller. Fuller was suspended on Dec. 1 for the remainder of the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. With the deck stacked against him, Watson has still shined. In the last four games without Fuller, Watson is still completing 73 percent of his attempts for 1,257 yards, six touchdowns, and just one interception, which translates to a 112 passer rating.

For the Texans to pull off the upset on Sunday, Watson will have to continue his outstanding play, and he will likely have to do it without the help of his two starting tackles in Laremy Tunsil (ankle) and Brent Vale (concussion). The Titans' defense knows firsthand just how dangerous Watson can be after he threw for 335 yards, four touchdowns (138.9 rating) against them in Week 6. It would be no surprise for Watson to be lights-out once again, especially after Tennessee's 28th-ranked passing defense was lit up last Sunday night by Aaron Rodgers for four touchdowns and a 128.1 rating.

3. Red-zone Tannehill

Henry takes up so many column inches, the rest of the Titans' offense is almost overlooked. But this offense is one of the most balanced and dangerous in the entire league. Tennessee ranks second in rushing (160.1 ypg), third in scoring (30.0 ppg), fourth in yards per play (6.1), and fifth in total offense (390.1 ypg).

Henry is certainly the engine of the offense, but he is surrounded by a strong supporting casting, starting with Ryan Tannehill. While not elite, Tannehill has proven to be far more than just a game manager. He's is as efficient as any quarterback in the game right now ranking fourth in passer rating (106.7), seventh in touchdowns (32), and leading the league in fourth-quarter comebacks (4) and game-winning drives (5). He is brilliant at spreading the ball around amongst the Titans' excellent receiving corps. Both A.J. Brown and Corey Davis have 60 catches this season, and each has at least 900 receiving yards and average more than 15 yards per catch.

But where Tannehill has made his money is inside the red zone. Twenty-five of his 32 touchdown passes this season have come inside the opponents' 20, where he also is posting an impressive 102 passer rating. Tannehill's ability to utilize his weapons is highlighted in the red zone where tight end Jonnu Smith shines. All eight of Smith's touchdown catches have come inside the red zone. Thanks to the Tannehill-Smith connection, the Titans are one of the best red zone teams in the NFL, ranking second in scoring percentage (74.6) and touchdowns (44).

Look for Tannehill to continue to target Smith in scoring situations if the Texans sell out to stop Henry and the running game.

Final Analysis

The Titans are still trying to prove they belong among the AFC's elite and can contend for a Super Bowl. But they can't contend until they put away Deshaun Watson and the Texans. Last season, Tennessee chose Derrick Henry to be their closer to get them into the postseason. Don't be shocked to see the same game plan on Sunday. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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Prediction: Titans 34, Texans 28

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.