Week 17 in the NFL is always a little funky, what with about half the teams having nothing but draft positioning to play for. The Houston Texans, your AFC South division champs for the second straight year, don't empirically have an urgent reason to win their game on Sunday in Nashville, as they will be the AFC's No. 4 seed regardless of the outcome.
However, there are three reasons the Texans should be putting forth suitable effort on Sunday, even if their personnel might be slightly tweaked from normal (more on this in a minute):
1. A win on Sunday would mean a 10-6 season, and for whatever reason, I get the sense that players and coaches value a ten-win season.
2. The Texans are on a ten-game winning streak in the AFC South, the longest current in-division winning streak in football. In case you're wondering, the NFL record for divisional winning streaks is 16 in a row, by the Indianapolis Colts from late 2012 through mid-2015. Oddly enough, the final win in that streak was the Colts' win over the Texans in Houston on a Thursday night last season, which happens to be the last time the Texans lost a game in the division. Weird, right?
3. Pride, momentum, mojo, all those esoteric, intangible reasons you want to win a sporting event, especially knowing you have another sporting event coming up the next weekend.
So what should we be watching for this Sunday? Well, I'd start here...
4. Savage getting more savage
I wouldn't say that Tom Savage regressed in his first career start versus the Bengals last weekend, but things certainly came harder than they did the previous week against the Jaguars. Savage looked more comfortable in the second half, with the Texans speeding up the tempo and Savage responding fairly well to Marvin Lewis's package of blitzes. Sunday's game is probably most important for Savage, of all the Texans starters, to get a good feel for life outside of NRG Stadium, and continue to progress as the new starter for this team.
3. THAT version of DeAndre Hopkins
There's no way around it — this season has been a gigantic disappointment for DeAndre Hopkins, at least from a statistical standpoint. Needing a monster game of about 170 yards, Hopkins still has an outside shot at 1,000 yards for the season, but for now, he will need to hang his hat on the CONTEXT of his catches this season, if he can't hang it on the quantity...
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2. Shoring up special teams
Despite better performance on punt coverage teams, and a kicker/punter combo that is performing at a high level, the Texans special teams are still 31st in DVOA. The three teams they could meet in the wild card round are all ranked in the top 13 in special teams — Kansas City is No. 5, Miami is No. 11 and Oakland is No. 13. Every rep covering and returning punts and kicks is a good thing for this team.
1. "Bubble wrap" treatment
If I were Bill O'Brien, I'd go ahead and let Lamar Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Johnathan Joseph all sit this one out. That's not being overly cautious when all four guys have missed games during the month of December. If you want to add Brian Cushing to that list, that's fine, too. I get wanting to win the game, but there is a need for pragmatism, too.
Prediction: Texans 24, Titans 10
Spread: Titans -2.5
Season record (SU, ATS): 11-4, 9-5-1
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