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NFL Preview - Tennessee (8-7) at Houston (10-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Following a lopsided defeat to the Houston Texans back in late October, the Tennessee Titans probably didn't want to face their AFC South rivals a second time -- let alone set up a date for a possible third meeting.
However, Mike Munchak's club hopes it gets another chance to rematch with the Texans next week, because that means not only will his Titans have bested Houston in this weekend's matchup from Reliant Stadium, but it would also signify that Tennessee is back in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
While the Texans are locked into the third seed thanks to their first-ever AFC South title and franchise-record 10 wins on the season, the Titans head to Houston fighting for their playoff lives. After a disappointing loss to previously-winless Indianapolis on Dec. 18, Tennessee rebounded with a 23-17 win over Jacksonville this past weekend.
That pushed the Titans to an 8-7 record and kept them a game back of the conference's second Wild Card spot. There are three ways that Tennessee can get into the playoffs, but each scenario involves a Titans win over the Texans and a Cincinnati loss to Baltimore on Sunday. Since the Bengals' game doesn't kick off until after Tennessee's contest, the Titans won't know their fate until well afterward if they manage to beat the Texans.
"Like I told them [Wednesday] morning so they would get it out of their mind, once we do win, our playoff chances are alive until the second level of games is played," said Munchak. "It's good that we don't have to watch the scoreboard or get guys caught up in seeing what other teams are doing at the same time, because there is nobody playing that could affect us."
The New York Jets, Oakland and Denver all also factor into how the Titans can get in. Should New York win this week, Tennessee would need either a Raiders or Broncos loss in addition to a Bengals defeat. However, a Jets loss to the Miami Dolphins would mean that the Titans would need both the Raiders and Broncos to win their games against San Diego and Kansas City, respectively.
The Titans would not be in this position if not for last week's win over the Jaguars that was the 399th in team history, including the playoffs. Tennessee jumped out to a 10-0 lead thanks to Rob Bironas' 51-yard field goal and a 55- yard touchdown pass by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to tight end Jared Cook, and were able to hold on from there.
"We're still alive in the playoffs and we still have an opportunity," said Titans linebacker Colin McCarthy. "That's all we can ask for."
While the Texans have little to play for, they will take this opportunity to get ready for the postseason given that they will play in the first round. They also don't want to take a three-game slide into the playoffs after dropping back-to-back games to Carolina and Indianapolis following a seven- game win streak.
"A win's what you're after every week," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. "Don't get me wrong there, but my point is we've got to get back to the type of football that has made us successful, and what I'm alluding to there is the turnover situation, the turnover battles, not hurting ourselves penalty-wise or mistakes. That's something that we have been very solid on as a football team and will have to be solid on starting next week if we're going to have our chances to win."
Houston held a 16-12 lead over the Colts in Week 16, but dropped a 19-16 decision after Indianapolis quarterback Dan Orlovsky found wideout Reggie Wayne for a one-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left.
Former third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was solid in his first couple of outings for the Texans since taking over for the injured Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, but has struggled over his past two outings and hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in those games.
"We're playing with a young quarterback and we're adjusting every week as we go," Kubiak said. "We're struggling to find some points and obviously didn't find enough [against the Colts]."
Arian Foster carried the Houston offense in that game, something he did very well against the Titans back in Week 7. In that 41-7 Texans' win, Foster helped Houston score 27 unanswered points and finished the game with 115 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Houston is also expected to get two pieces of its team back for this game.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson is slated to return after missing the past three games with an injured left hamstring. That came shortly after a six-game absence due to a right hamstring ailment.
Also, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is expected to coach from the booth for the first time since taking a medical leave of absence for 10 days because of surgery on his kidney and gallbladder.
Tennessee has won 13 of 19 all-time meetings with the Texans, with the two AFC South members having split the season series in each of the past three years. Houston took the 2010 encounter held at Reliant Stadium via a 20-0 score, with Tennessee coming out on top as the road team the previous year by a 20-17 count. The Titans, who were based in Houston as the Oilers from 1960-1996, are 6-3 lifetime against the Texans in their former city. The Texans have swept a home-and-home set from Tennessee just once in their history, back in 2004.
Kubiak owns a 4-7 career record against Tennessee, while Munchak -- a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oilers from 1982-93 -- lost his only career matchup with the Texans and Kubiak in his present capacity with his team's Week 7 blowout defeat.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Titans came out of their matchup with the Jaguars having posted over 400 yards of offense for just the second time this season. The 407 yards they logged last weekend was well above the 17th-ranked offense's average (333.3 ypg), but most of that came through the air. Hasselbeck (3274 passing yards, 16 TD, 14 INT) threw for 350 yards on 24-of-40 passing, getting picked off twice in addition to his long score to Cook (45 receptions, 3 TD). Still, the veteran went over 3,000 yards passing in a season for the eighth time in his career and is within reach of the club-record of 3,387 yards Steve McNair passed for in 2002. Cook matched wide receiver Damian Williams (43 receptions, 5 TD) with a game-high eight catches while setting a career high with 169 receiving yards. Williams ended with 83 yards, while wide receiver Nate Washington (70 receptions, 6 TD) had four catches for 71 yards as he remained one touchdown catch away from a new career high. He is also 69 yards shy of reaching 1,000 receiving yards in a season for the first time. Despite just 56 yards on 15 carries versus the Jags, running back Chris Johnson (986 rushing yards, 4 TD) is 14 yards short of joining Eddie George and Earl Campbell as the only players in franchise history to post four straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Johnson, who rested a sore ankle this week, is the main piece of a ground game that's averaged a disappointing 90.1 yards per game on the year, which ranks 31st in the league.
Houston's defense should get a spark with the return of Phillips after the league's second-ranked unit (280.7 ypg) allowed the Colts to post 320 yards of offense. The Texans are also tied for second in defending the pass (184.0 ypg) and are fourth in points yielded per game at 17.0. Houston has already set a club record with 41 sacks this year, a number that was boosted by three in Week 16. Linebacker Brian Cushing (110 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) led the team with 12 tackles, forced two fumbles and had a sack, while rookie defensive end J.J. Watt (55 tackles, 5.5 sacks) also got to the quarterback while making five tackles and linebacker Connor Barwin (46 tackles, 11.5 sacks) also came up with a sack. The offseason addition of established corner Johnathan Joseph (44 tackles, 4 INT) to the young Kareem Jackson (37 tackles, 1 INT) has paid off for the Texans, as has the free-agent signing of safety Danieal Manning (55 tackles, 2 INT). Backup corner Brice McCain (26 tackles, 2 INT) had a big week versus the Colts with seven tackles and star linebacker DeMeco Ryans (60 tackles) ended with five stops. As a team, Houston has posted 17 interceptions this season.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
With the loss of Schaub (2479 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) and Leinart, Foster (1224 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 12 total TD) has become an even bigger part of Houston's offense. He ran for 158 yards and a score versus the Colts while taking 23 of the 31 handoffs for the league's second-ranked rushing unit (153.1 ypg). Foster also added three catches and needs 99 yards in this game to pass Domanick Williams (3,195 rushing yards) as the club's all-time leading rusher. It has been a frustrating season for the talented Andre Johnson (31 receptions, 2 TD), but his return should help him get ready for the playoffs and give Yates (902 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) a much-needed go-to option. Yates only missed on three of his 16 pass attempts versus the Colts, but totaled just 132 yards while getting sacked four times. There is no doubt that adding Johnson to fellow wideouts Kevin Walter (39 receptions, 3 TD) and Jacoby Jones (28 receptions, 2 TD), as well as tight ends Owen Daniels (54 receptions, 3 TD) and Joel Dreessen (25 receptions, 6 TD), should help greatly. Dreessen led all Houston receivers with four catches versus the Colts, while Walter had a team-high 47 yards on three receptions.
The Titans' 17th-ranked defense (353.0 ypg) limited the Jaguars to 300 net yards last week, but their 24th-ranked run defense (126.7 ypg) did yield 103 yards to Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew while allowing the Jags to score twice on the ground. Still, Tennessee has stood up when it's needed to, as it is giving up 19.7 points per game, seventh-best in the NFL. Rookie lineman Karl Klug (20 tackles, 7 sacks) continued his assault on quarterbacks last weekend as he extended his club rookie record for sacks by a defensive tackle. Klug is also the team's overall leader in that category, well ahead of defensive ends Dave Ball (32 tackles, 3 sacks) and Jason Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks). End Derrick Morgan (29 tackles, 2 sacks) and rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers (72 tackles, 2 sacks) led the way with seven tackles each versus the Jags, while McCarthy (60 tackles, 1 INT) and corners Jason McCourty (96 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Cortland Finnegan (74 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had six apiece. Safety Michael Griffin (64 tackles, 2 INT) came up with a fourth- quarter interception in last week's win, the 17th pick of his career.
KEYS TO THE GAME
While Houston certainly doesn't want to head into the playoffs on a losing streak, it is safe to wonder just how much Kubiak is going to play his starters given that the team can't change their seeding. Yates will likely get a large portion of time under center, but the likes of Foster, Andre Johnson and Daniels could see limited time on the field.
A fast start by the Titans could also force Kubiak to go to his subs early if the game looks out of reach. Tennessee will need all hands on deck in this game with a chance at the playoffs, and will go hard for 60 minutes since it can't scoreboard-watch. The key will be Chris Johnson, who needs to find his explosive form and wear down Houston's starters in an effort to get to the reserves and hopefully some daylight.
With Houston stingy on allowing points, the leg of Bironas could be what wins it for the Titans. Munchak is not shy in letting his kicker try the long ones, as Bironas hit a pair of 51-yarders last week and set a new NFL record with a ninth straight game of making at least a 40-yard field goal.
Players can talk all they want about how much winning each and every week means to them, or how important it is, but that may be just words from a playoff-bound Texans club that has nothing on the line. Some big plays and heavy hits from the Titans would surely knock the desire out of the Texans and make things a little easier for Tennessee to keep its playoff chances alive. The Titans will certainly see the Texans' dominating defense at full strength early, so they need to avoid falling behind and giving the Houston backups some cushion. That's hard to imagine happening in a game that means so much to the Titans and so little to the Texans.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 23, Texans 19
12/29 17:45:30 ET