NASHVILLE -- The Titans, in a win-and-in playoff scenario, face the Houston Texans on Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Here's a look at six things to watch:
An Extra Gear?
The Titans elected to rest running back Derrick Henry against the Saints, giving his lingering hamstring injury more time to heal. Henry said this week the rest should help, and he's practiced this week. But even Titans coach Mike Vrabel acknowledged the true test won't come until full speed action on Sunday. Henry's run of four-straight 100-yard games was broken against the Texans in his last game on December 15 – he ran for 86 yards in that one after games of 188 yards (Chiefs), 159 yards (Jaguars), 149 yards (Colts) and 103 yards (Raiders). Will the 1,329-yard back find his extra gear? The Titans hope so.
A Big Spot
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been a season saver for the Titans. After stepping in as the starter in Week 7, Tannehill's helped turn a 2-4 team into a playoff contender. Tannehill has done some special things since taking over, guiding the team to a 6-3 record with a 70.7 completion percentage and an average of 9.6 yards per passing attempt while throwing for 2,544 yards. On Sunday, Tannehill has a chance to break at least three franchise records – benchmarks for passer rating (116.5), completion percentage and passing average. What the Titans want most is for him to guide the team into the postseason in the biggest game of his career.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien has said all week his team is "playing to win" on Sunday, but that really doesn't provide too many hints about which players he'll choose to utilize. No matter who lines up for the Texans, as Herm Edwards famously said, "You play to win the game." But will the Texans risk the health of players like quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and others in a game that could ultimately be meaningless with a playoff spot already secured? We'll find out Sunday.
Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees said this week he's preparing to face the same Texans team he faced back on December 15, which includes Watson, Hopkins and the rest of the front-liners. If I'm Pees and Watson's in fact out there, I'd blitz him early and make him feel some good clean hits. If O'Brien is in fact bluffing, then the team's in-game plan against back-up quarterback AJ McCarron figures to be much different. McCarron's stats for 2019: 1 attempt and 0 completions.
Titans rookie A.J. Brown scored on a 49-yard touchdown run against the Saints, but was otherwise relatively quiet while going up against one of the game's top corners in Marshon Lattimore. Receiver Corey Davis left the Saints game with a concussion. But receiver Tajae Sharpe stepped up with a pair of touchdown grabs, and tight end Jonnu Smith continued to make plays. Here's what's happening now: Brown is 73 yards from reaching 1,000 yards for the season, Davis has practiced this week, and Sharpe and Smith are rolling into Week 17 with confidence. The Titans will need their playmakers to produce in this one.
It's always a big part of the game, and the Titans need to be good in this category on Sunday. Punter Brett Kern has been as dependable as the come, but the Titans head into the contest with some moving parts. With Adam Humphries, Adoree' Jackson and Kalif Raymond all sidelined from practices during the week with injuries, at least two new returners will likely be in the mix Sunday, starting with kick returner Darius Jennings, who was re-signed this week. The Titans also promoted Rashard Davis from the practice squad, in part because of his return abilities. He's among a few options the team has at punt returner. At kicker, Greg Joseph heads into his second game with the team, which is looking to improve on kick coverage. The return of linebacker/special teamer Daren Bates would help.