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NFL Preview - Houston (3-3) at Tennessee (3-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Call it the "Lesser of Four Evils" Bowl.
In an AFC South Division bereft of a true powerhouse -- defending champion Indianapolis is 0-6, perennial dark-horse Jacksonville is 1-5 -- the battle for supremacy is left instead to the something-less-than-juggernaut Tennessee Titans and the barely-ahead-of-mediocre Houston Texans, two teams that will square off in an important division clash Sunday at LP Field.
And to the winner of this midseason version of February's big game, perhaps the Steve Lombardi Trophy? A token previously reserved for WWE fall guys.
But seriously, it's not exactly the matchup the world's been pining for.
Both of the divisional front-runners head to Nashville on the heels of a loss, with the visiting Texans dropping a 29-14 verdict at Baltimore last week and Tennessee taking a 38-17 whooping at Pittsburgh a week earlier before a well- timed bye.
By taking the break, the Titans moved from a first-place tie with Houston to a half-game lead in the division standings.
And looking ahead to next week's home date with Indianapolis, the host Titans have a chance to get a further leg up.
"It's early," Tennessee coach Mike Munchak said. "We all know that, but you would rather what's happening happen, and we still know what we have to do this weekend starting with the Texans [and] playing two division games in a row. We lost our first one [at Jacksonville in Week 1], so this game is huge for us to come out and play well against a division opponent at home."
Assumed to be a run-heavy team with $53 million man Chris Johnson, first-year head coach Munchak's unit has instead languished at the bottom of the ground- gaining heap with an average of only 66.6 yards per game.
Johnson has one touchdown on the season, and his average of 3.0 yards per carry is second-to-last among the 48 rushers with enough attempts to qualify in that category.
"Some guys may sit there and say, 'Well, I thought it was the running back. No, it's the O-line. No, it's the tight end,' so I think you all realize that it's a team effort to be ranked where we are," Munchak said. "It's all of us, from coaching to the play-calling to the execution, all of that is part of it when you are dead last. We know that, we are not happy about it, and it's up to us to do something about it."
Johnson averaged 67.5 rushing yards in two games against Houston last season.
The Texans, meanwhile, are struggling to find their own rhythm without injured star Andre Johnson, who's expected to miss a third straight game with a hamstring problem. The prolific wide receiver did not practice on Wednesday.
Houston was 3-1 after an impressive 17-10 win over Pittsburgh in Week 4, but has subsequently dropped two straight -- a last-play 25-20 loss to visiting Oakland the day after Al Davis' death followed by the aforementioned rout at the hands of Baltimore last week.
Also out this week -- and for the rest of the season as well -- is former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, the pass-rushing specialist who suffered a torn pectoral muscle against the Raiders.
"We're going to Tennessee to play in a huge game, for the division lead," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "We're getting over the disappointment of [Baltimore] really fast, and we're getting excited about playing this weekend. We've been in two very tough games, and haven't gotten it done. But we come in here, we make our corrections, we've got to juggle some guys around because of some of the nicks we've got going on."
Tennessee has won 13 of 18 all-time meetings with the Texans and split a pair of 2010 matchups against its fellow AFC South member, with Houston recording a 20-0 shutout at Reliant Stadium last November and the Titans getting revenge via a 31-17 triumph in Nashville during Week 15. The Texans are just 2-7 all- time at LP Field, with their lone victories occurring in 2004 (20-10) and 2009 (34-31).
Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers from 1982-93, will be opposing the Texans for the first time in his present capacity, while Kubiak is 3-7 lifetime against Tennessee and has never previously gone head-to- head with Munchak.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Dating back to November of 2010, Houston has won three of its past four games against the AFC South, and in his past five matchups against Tennessee, quarterback Matt Schaub has completed 133-of-206 passes for 1,449 yards, 11 touchdowns and a 101.0 passer rating. In three road games this season, Schaub has completed 64-of-105 passes for 823 yards, six touchdowns and a 100.6 quarterback rating. In his past six contests against AFC South foes, running back Arian Foster is averaging 121.2 rushing yards per game with seven touchdowns. Foster aims for a fourth straight game with at least 100 scrimmage yards (166, 184, 101) as well. Wide receiver Kevin Walter had seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in Houston's last meeting with the Titans, while fellow wideout Jacoby Jones had a 32-yard touchdown catch last week, his first of the season. Newly-acquired wide receiver Derrick Mason (940 career receptions) needs just one catch to surpass Hall of Famer Art Monk for 11th- most all-time, while tight end Owen Daniels has 415 career receiving yards against the Titans, his most against any team.
Cornerback Jason McCourty leads Tennessee in tackles with 39 and interceptions with two, while counterpart Cortland Finnegan registered his first interception of the season in his last game. Finnegan had a 99-yard return for a touchdown against the Texans in September of 2008 as well. Seventh-year veteran end Dave Ball's 15 tackles and a sack leads the unit up front, while middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has 37 tackles to lead that group.
Houston is 14th in scoring (23.5 ppg), eighth in total offense (381.0 ypg), 11th in passing yards (254.8 ypg) and seventh in rushing yards (126.2 ypg), while Tennessee is sixth in scoring defense (18.8 ppg), ninth in total yards allowed (326.0 ypg), 12th in passing yards allowed (221.0 ppg) and 10th against the run (105.0 ypg).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee is 13-9 after a bye week and 7-2 all-time at home against the Texans, and is seeking a third consecutive win at LP Field this season. At home in 2011, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has completed 57-of-78 passes for 669 yards, three touchdowns and a 106.2 passer rating. He has a 90-plus passer rating in four of five games this season. For his career, running back Chris Johnson averages 91.7 rushing yards per game against the AFC South (1,652 in 18 games), and needs 28 scrimmage yards to reach 6,000 for his career. He's rushed for 100-plus yards in three of his last four games against Houston (197, 151, 130) and averages 5.9 yards per carry versus the Texans for his career. Wide receiver Nate Washington had a touchdown catch in Tennessee's last game against the Texans, while wideout Damian Williams aims for his third consecutive game with a scoring reception. Tight end Jared Cook is averaging 18.9 yards per catch this season.
Houston's defense is tied with the New York Jets with an AFC-best 17 sacks. End Tim Jamison had a career-high two sacks last week. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph registered his third interception of the season in the Texans' loss to Baltimore, while safety Glover Quin had a career-best three picks versus the Titans in November of 2010.
Tennessee is 20th in points scored (21.0 ppg), 19th in total offense (339.0 ypg), ninth in passing yards (272.4 ypg) and dead last in rushing (66.6 ypg). Houston is ninth in scoring defense (20.7 ppg), 10th in total yards allowed (328.7 ypg), 13th in pass defense (221.7 ypg) and 13th against the run (107.0 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can Chris Johnson get back to normalcy after his 66.6-yard average over the first five games against a Houston team that's 13th in the league against the run?
Finding a new source of big-play receptions for the injured Andre Johnson is a task for Kubiak and the Houston offense, though it's been easier said than done.
Maintaining possession of the ball will be vital to the team that ultimately wins. For lack of a better tie-breaker, the team that limits mistakes will be in the best shape.
The Texans had multiple stars in Schaub, Foster and Andre Johnson, but have scaled it back since the big-play receiver got hurt. In a game where nearly all else is equal, take the team with the home field and the veteran quarterback to maintain their hold on the top spot in the AFC South.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 24, Texans 23
10/20 19:04:58 ET