Sean Pendergast

NFL Week 18: Titans-Texans — Four Things To Watch For

Lovie Smith's defense will be challenged by a vibrant Titans rushing attack.
Lovie Smith's defense will be challenged by a vibrant Titans rushing attack. Photo by Eric Sauseda
Sixty more minutes of football, and one of the stranger seasons for the Houston Texans will come to an end, as they face off against the Tennessee Titans on Fan Appreciation Day this Sunday afternoon at NRG Stadium.

While the last two years have been littered with instances of the team seemingly doing everything it can to alienate the fan base, give the Texans a little credit — they did announce a reduction in season ticket prices for their existing season ticket member base.

As the spouse of an original season ticket member, I would like to thank the Texans for the $430 in savings. (NOTE: They've already been spent, I'm sure.) In all seriousness, this is a sign that at least one area of the building has a firm grasp on just how disenfranchised some fans feel. Those fans are now represented by a slew of empty seats on Sunday.

As for this one final game of the season, and the level of "juice" in the building, it does help that it's the Titans coming to town, and it does help that the Titans have significant stakes in the result of this game. So let's start there with the things to watch for on Sunday:

4. What's at stake, for both sides
For the Titans, it's simple — win this game as a double digit favorite, and you clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoff race. The top seed has always been significant, because it comes with a first round bye AND home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. However, with the addition of a seventh AFC playoff team, now there is only ONE bye to be had in each conference. The Texans, on the other hand, are focused on their draft slot for next season. Losing this game would actually clinch the third overall pick, but winning the game would only bump the Texans down to the fifth overall pick. I would say it's worth the two slots in the draft to partially ruin Tennessee's postseason chances.

3. Former Texans-turned-Titans galore
There are recent former Houston Texans on almost every roster in the NFL. That will happen when you trade off star players, let free agents walk, and give out so many bad contracts — cough, O'Brien, cough — that the next general manager has no choice but to gut the team. Of all the other 31 teams, there are more former Houston Texans on the Tennessee Titans than anywhere else. It stands to reason, with former Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as the head coach. Among the half dozen or so former Texan players on the Titans, the ones that Texan fans will be watching most prominently on Sunday will be former 2017 third round pick RB D'Onta Foreman, who rushed for 132 yards last week in Derrick Henry's absence, and former 2017 second round pick LB Zach Cunningham, who was waived a few weeks ago, and is now starting for the Titans, and led them in tackles last week.

2. Texans players pursuing milestones
Since there is no Texans postseason football to look forward to after Sunday, let's also point out some statistical milestones that are at stake for individual team members on Sunday. Here are a few to watch:

* DE JONATHAN GREENARD (8 sacks in 11 games) needs two sacks on Sunday to become the fifth player in team history to finish a season with double digit sacks. The other four are J.J. Watt (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018), Mario Williams (2007, 2008), Whitney Mercilus (2015, and Connor Barwin (2011).

* WR BRANDIN COOKS needs 194 yards receiving to set his single season high. While 194 yards would be a career high in a game for Cooks, it is doable. His current season high total in receiving yards was back in 2018 with the Rams, when he amassed 1,204 yards receiving.

* Rookie QB DAVIS MILLS needs 230 yards passing to set a Texans' rookie record for passing yards. The current record holder is David Carr, who put up 2,592 yards passing in the franchise's inaugural campaign in 2002. If we want to get really freaky, if Mills could pull a "Ryan Fitzpatrick," and throw six TD passes in a home win over Tennessee (like Fitzy did in 2014), Mills would tie Deshaun Watson for the team's rookie record in touchdown passes with 19 total.

* RB REX BURKHEAD (403 yards rushing) needs to rush for 35 yards to keep from the 2021 Houston Texans having the lowest season long output from an individual rushing leader in team history. The current "record holder" (using those quotes because this is a dubious distinction) is Steve Slaton, with 437 rushing yards back in 2009.

1. Players (possibly) playing in final games as a Texan
The Texans entered this season with a majority of their roster comprised of brand new Houston Texans. Also, many of those first time Texans were on one year deals, so this just in — there is going to be a LOT of turnover with this roster again in 2022. On Sunday, a lot of the Texans players taking the field will be playing in their final games as Houston Texans.

Among those that are likely to be gone after this season, the ones that have played a key role (for better or worse) over the last few seasons include pending free agents S Justin Reid, TE Jordan Akins, RB David Johnson, and TE Pharaoh Brown. Among the players who could be released for salary cap purposes after Sunday, I would include S Eric Murray, T Marcus Cannon, and K Ka'imi Fairbairn. Among the young players who may get cut loose for performance reasons, I would add CB Lonnie Johnson and G Max Scharping.

SPREAD: Texans +10.5
PREDICTION: Titans 34, Texans 17

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast