This Sunday the Titans and the Texas are going to put the AFC South lead on the line with just three games remaining on both teams’ regular-season schedules. It’s been a tale of two very different teams who look, however, like they are at a similar level with 8-5 records.
Both of those teams have had good campaigns. Both have been impressive. The Texans have defeated teams like the Patriots and the Chiefs but a loss to a 5-8 Broncos team might have left a bad taste for a team whose losses are all but one to opponents who reached the NFL Playoffs last year.
Tennessee has been a little different a case. The Titans have won four in a row and are 7-3 after a change under centre that saw Ryan Tannehill become the team’s starting quarterback. A Titans offense, which was considered abysmal at the start of the season, has scored 30+ points in all four of the team’s straight wins during their current streak.
Their winning streak actually has more to do with the running game rather than Tannehill’s brilliance. Derrick Henry has rushed for over 100 yards in four in a row – he had only one such performance in the first 9 games of the year. He’s currently only one of three running backs across the NFL to average 5 yards per run, and ranks second in yards per attempt and total yards, behind Nick Chubb in both categories.
The defense has been solid all year long. The unit has allowed 19.6 points per game, 9th-best in the NFL. The O-Line has made a surge, and this sets up a favourable match-up against a Texans offensive line that has allowed 3 or more sacks in three of their last four. The receiving core hasn’t been consistent enough, despite the team performing very well when it’s at its best. DeAndre Hopkins has been great but Wil Fuller isn’t reliable, and so are Jordan Akins and Darren Fells at the tight end position.
Watson simply needs the help of his receivers to get it done, even considering his ability to extend plays, and putting pressure on him isolates the passing game and, in the meantime, limits Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson as the ground game combo the Texans have been so dependent on all year long.
This is exactly what the Titans have been able to do recently, recording 6 sacks two weeks ago against the Colts and a total of 8 in the last two games, and that given them a whole lot to be hopeful because of.
The strong focus on head-to-head comparisons is not a coincidence. Those two teams will meet twice to determine the division winner, and likely the only playoff team from the AFC South, in the last three weeks of football, starting on Sunday in Nashville. In between those two meetings, the Titans clearly have the more nightmarish Week 16 game, welcoming the Saints to Nissan Stadium, which means that even if the Titans win on Sunday, it still might come down to Week 17.
Subsequently, if they lose their home game against the Texans, the intrigue down south could be coming to its conclusion. The final gasps of the 2019 season couldn’t be so vital, yet so desperate for the Titans – Tennessee’s postseason hopes ended bitterly last year in a crucial Week 17 SNF against the Colts, a year after the Titans came back to beat the Chiefs, only to get squashed by the Patriots in the Divisional Round.
The Titans last won the South in 2008, 11 years ago, under head coach Jeff Fisher. That makes the current campaign an opportunity for Mike Vrabel to prove himself. His tenure in Nashville has obviously been beyond solid but if the team doesn’t make another step forward, Vrabel could be pointed the door out of the organization. The team’s talent living up to its full potential has been long overdue, and we’re still waiting for this to happen. The club’s surge back with Tannehill could be a saving grace, but the Titans are unlikely to fire him even if he misses the playoffs. But it would be a worrying sign in the long term.
And what makes ‘now’ so important for the Titans is that as Marcus Mariota doesn’t seem to be the long-term answer under center, the team could face a serious challenge replacing him which could delay what has been building up in Tennessee for at least three years.
As the Titans enter the upcoming game that could decide the division, at least for the time being, as a three-point favourite, Tennessee needs to make the most of its best shot at the division crown in years, and has not one but two chance to solidify its position in the last three weeks of NFL football.