(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — The Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans saw each other just two weeks ago in Nashville. Both teams, at 8-5, went into that first matchup of the season looking to gain control of the AFC South. The Texans prevailed, 24-21, holding off a Titans team that scored all of its three touchdowns in the second half.
The Texans edged out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 23-20, in Week 16 to move to 10-5. The Titans fell to the New Orleans Saints last week, 38-28, to drop to 8-7. Those two outcomes gave the Texans the AFC South title and relegated the Titans to wild-card contention.
The Texans and Titans still may have plenty to play for in their regular season-ending matchup. The Texans, currently the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs, can win their way into the third seed if the Kansas City Chiefs lose. The third-seeded Chiefs play the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS and are nine-point favorites. The Titans and Texans kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET, also on CBS, meaning Houston will know by the game’s start (or soon after) if a win over their division rival can better their playoff standing.
Unlike the Texans, who have clinched a playoff spot regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the Titans need to win to ensure a postseason bid. They currently hold the tiebreaker over the also 8-7 Pittsburgh Steelers. So a Titans win secures them the sixth seed, regardless of what the Steelers do in Baltimore against the Ravens. (It’s worth noting that the Ravens have clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and will be resting many of their key starters, including Lamar Jackson.) A Titans loss, however, means they’ll need the Steelers and Indianapolis Colts to lose to make the postseason.
Understand all that? Well, here’s the short version. The Texans only need to beat the Titans if the Chiefs lose, which will be known by game time, while the Titans must win to guarantee a playoff spot.
For now, both teams are looking at their Week 17 matchup as a must-win. (Things could change for the Texans Sunday afternoon, of course.) The Texans and Titans approached their Week 15 matchup with same level of finality, going scoreless through the first quarter. Deshaun Watson then connected with Kenny Stills for touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the second quarter pushing the Texans to a 14-0 halftime lead. Ryan Tannehill responded with two second-half TD passes of his own, along with a goal-line run, but it ultimately wasn’t enough.
The Texans, when they show up, can pose problems for good teams. Their season so far includes a 31-24 win over the Chiefs and a 28-22 win over the New England Patriots, both division winners. They also stuck with the New Orleans Saints in a season-opening loss. Watson leads a top-10 passing offense that puts up 239.4 yards per game. His 26 touchdowns — seven to DeAndre Hopkins, the NFL’s second-leading receiver — put him up with the league’s best. The Texans’ rushing attack, also among the NFL’s top 10, averages 126.7 yards per game.
The Titans stumbled to a 2-4 start before replacing quarterback Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill as starter. Tannehill’s consistency and production seemed to ignite their stagnant offense; he’s one of only a few starters completing over 70% of his passes. Tennessee won six of their next seven with him under center to climb back into the playoff race. Derrick Henry steamrolling opposing defenses to the tune of almost 100 yards per game has certainly helped. He sat out the loss to the Saints with a hamstring issue, however.
The Titans will need a healthy Henry if they hope to take down the Texans and do some damage in the playoffs. (He appears on track to play.) The Texans run defense gives up a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, among the worst in the NFL. The 112.8 yards per game they allow is comparatively better. But either way, Henry should see opportunities to pick up yardage.
Perhaps the bigger factor in the Titans-Texans game is a team not even playing. If the Chiefs beat the Chargers in the early game, the Texans no longer have anything to play for. That could lead to a premature exit for many Houston starters, as coaches look to protect key players from injuries. Tannehill, Henry and others may quickly find themselves facing a lesser team than they saw just two weeks ago. It also would increase their chances of a better result.
The Titans play the Texans Sunday @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.