It's amazing how quickly things can change in the course of a couple of weeks in the NFL. Just two weeks ago, heading into Week 15 of the season, the Texans and Titans were tied atop the AFC South, but it was the Titans with all of the buzz and momentum, riding a 6-1 stretch and a red hot offense right back into the playoff hunt. Meanwhile, the Texans were coming off perhaps the worst loss of the Bill O'Brien Era, a 38-24 defeat to a mediocre Denver Broncos squad that was starting a rookie quarterback. At one point, the Texans trailed in that game by a score of 38-3.
As a result, the Titans were favored by three points heading into that game, with about a 52 percent chance of eventually winning the division. Fast forward two weeks, the Texans have gone 2-0 in those two games, the Titans have gone 0-2, and the Texans are AFC South champs for the fourth time in five years. The Titans are battling for the last wild card spot.
When you lay it out that way, it makes you forget just how deficient the Texans were in the area of style points against the Bucs last Saturday. Taken at face value, the accomplishments of the last two weeks by the Texans are fairly impressive — in a six day span, they went on the road, in December, and beat two teams who were both riding four game winning streaks into those games.
The Titans are actually a bigger favorite in this game coming up Sunday at NRG Stadium than they were two weeks ago, but that's because the oddsmakers expect to see very little, if any, of Deshaun Watson on Sunday. Let's start there with the things to watch for in the Texans' regular season finale....
4. The scoreboard
The NFL schedule makers were kind enough to push this game back to a late window start, 3:25 p.m., to be exact. While socially, this is a way better time slot than the usual noon kickoff (because there's far less self-loathing with being drunk in the early afternoon than there is being wasted at breakfast), it's also a better functional deal for the Texans. Mathematically, the Texans can still move up from the 4-seed to the 3-seed, if the Chargers can somehow upset the Chiefs in Kansas City, a game with a noon kickoff. The Chargers winning is unlikely, but stranger things have happened. In other words, the Texans should know by kickoff of their game whether or not they can move up the AFC pecking order with a win over the Titans. I'd like to see them move up, and avoid a scenario that has the Bills coming to NRG next week, and the Ravens waiting in the divisional round.
3. What to do with Deshaun
When asked about resting players for the playoffs now that the division is clinched, Bill O'Brien has said all week that the Texans will play Sunday's game "to win the game," whatever that means. He's been very guarded in revealing any plans about resting key players. The oddsmakers clearly expect to see a lot of A.J. McCarron in this game, as they've made the Titans a 3.5 point road favorite. There is an argument to be made for just sitting Deshaun regardless of the Chargers-Chiefs outcome, and beginning preparation for Buffalo in the wild card round of the playoffs, treating this weekend as almost a de facto bye week. It's an interesting take, but if I had to guess, O'Brien isn't thinking that way. Will Fuller will miss this game, and probably the playoff opener, but I would put Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Laremy Tunsil, and a few others on a short list of guys that might be better served staying in warmups and ball caps on Sunday.
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2. Keke Coutee
With Fuller out, the door once again opens for Coutee to get back into the mix of regular, active players each Sunday. He has been a healthy scratch the last two weeks, after his fumble in the Denver loss handed the Broncos their second touchdown of the game. That was a game Fuller missed due to injury, so Coutee got a chance, and fumbled it away. Undoubtedly, with Fuller out, Coutee will be back on the field this Sunday, and it would really help this team if Coutee could flash some of that slot receiver superhero stuff that made him so intriguing as a rookie in 2018.
1. Derrick Henry
For the Titans, a win puts them into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC, so they will come in motivated and looking to redeem themselves, to some degree, from what happened in Nashville against the Texans two weeks ago, a game where the Titans had opportunities to take control early in that game and could not, with Whitney Mercilus' interception in a scoreless tie being the big play in that game. Henry missed last week's loss to the Saints with a balky hamstring, and was largely bottled up by the Texans in the Week 15 loss. He still has an outside chance for a rushing title, but more than anything else, Titan fans need to see him healthy as the postseason approaches.
SPREAD: Titans -3.5
PREDICTION: Titans 24, Texans 17
SEASON RECORD: 10-5 SU, 8-6-1 ATS