For the 3rd year in a row, the Titans face a win and in scenario in Week 17. The Titans control their own destiny. A win sends them to the postseason while a loss would end their season.
Last season, the Titans fell short in Week 17 after a lingering elbow injury kept Marcus Mariota out of the game and forced Blaine Gabbert to start. The year prior, the Titans beat the Jaguars and made it into the playoffs. The Titans faced the Chiefs in the wildcard game and won in incredible fashion.
If the Titans win on Sunday, a 2017 wildcard rematch would be very possible. The Titans would have to play the Chiefs in Arrowhead, but this time, with Mike Vrabel and Ryan Tannehill rather than Mike Mularky and Marcus Mariota.
On Wednesday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said that the Texans would not be resting any starters against the Titans. The Texans have clinched the AFC South, therefore clinching a playoff berth. Stars Deshaun Watson and Deandre Hopkins were both on the injury report and are currently listed as Questionable. The Texans have no reason to rush back either player because they cannot improve their seeding with a win. I would not be surprised if the Texans do end up sitting some players out as a precautionary measure.
WR Adam Humphries and CB Adoree Jackson have both been ruled out and they will both be missing their 4th consecutive game. Additionally, WR Kalif Raymond was ruled out with a concussion after taking a hard hit toward the end of Saints game last week. Corey Davis was put through concussion protocol earlier this week, but he is good to go for Sundays game. After being strategically held out of last weeks game, Derrick Henry will play this week and LB/ST Darren Bates will be returning from a shoulder injury after missing three weeks.
The Titans kept Week 15's game against the Texans close but the loss was ultimately a result of individual errors. Execution will be the difference between winning and losing in Week 17. The Titans need to avoid individual mistakes such as Anthony Firkser's dropped touchdown pass and Ryan Succop's blocked field goal. Here are my keys to the game:
1. Run the Ball
Derrick Henry is arguably the best Running Back in the NFL right now. Henry has picked up his play as the season has progressed and he has proven, similar to last season, that he is the key to the Titans offense. Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith has done a very good job of utilizing Henry and he has given Henry a consistent stream of carries throughout the season. Here is a chart representing Henry's game against the Texans in Week 15:
It was not his best game but this chart shows Henry's runs throughout the game. Henry has proven that he is a more dominant runner when running outside and this chart represents that accurately. Relative to the hash mark the ball is on, all of Henry's runs of more than 5 yards come when Henry runs outside rather than down the middle. When Henry rushed for more than 90 yards, the Titans are 6-0 this season. Running the ball is my biggest key to the game because it can take pressure off of Ryan Tannehill and it can help manage the clock.
2. Be Aggressive early
Under Ryan Tannehill, the Titans have done a much better job of being aggressive. The Titans have had many more long passes with Tannehill and it has proven favorable. Rookie of the year, AJ Brown, has emerged as a favorite target for Tannehill and he has become a serious deep threat. Early aggression can lead to early points and the Titans have struggled with slow starts throughout the season.
These charts compare Ryan Tannehill's throws between Week 14 and 15. Tannehill had two solid games but he completed more passes of over 10 and 20 yards in Week 14's game against the Raiders. Additionally, two touchdowns came from passes of 20 or more yards. Aggression does not only come on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees is not afraid to bring some pressure and that will be important early on. Hopefully the pressure brings an early turnover like it did last time these teams faced each other.
3. Win the turnover battle
The Titans currently rank 10th in the NFL with a +5 turnover differential. The Titans have 13 interceptions, 9 fumbles recovered, 8 interceptions thrown, and 9 fumbles lost. The Titans turned the ball over just one time in Week 15 but the Texans capitalized on it immediately. Over the past 5 seasons, teams with more takeaways than giveaways have an average win percentage of 79%. The Titans have done a pretty good job of forcing turnovers but they must turn them into points. It feels that most times the Titans get a turnover and the defense puts the team in a good position, it leads to nothing. Offensively, the Titans have done a decent job of taking care of the ball. Ryan Tannehill needs to avoid fumbles and he MUST release the ball. Over the last couple weeks, Tannehill has held the ball for too long and it has resulted in sacks and near fumbles.
The Texans resting their starters would help the Titan greatly though I think the Titans will win the game either way. The Titans are currently favored by 5.5 points which likely means Vegas believes the Texans will sit some starters.
If the Titans were to lose, their playoff chances would not be completely extinguished. The Titans would need the Steelers to lose to the Ravens and the Colts to lose to the Jaguars. I think it is likely the Steelers will lose because of their poor quarterback play but I think it is unlikely that the Colts lose to the Jaguars.
I like the Titans chances on Sunday because everyone knows the importance of this game. The Titans will likely treat this game just like a playoff game and rightfully so. The game is away which may cause a few problems but should not be a factor in the outcome of the game. Overall, I feel good about this game and I think the Titans will have a solid performance. It is a bit surprising that the Titans can get in the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
I am predicting a 31-20 Titans win and I think Derrick Henry will have his biggest game of the season. This game determines the result of the season and it will have many implications.