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For Cunningham, Clinching No. 1 Seed at Houston Would 'Mean More'

The inside linebacker switched sides in this AFC South rivalry last month after he was waived, now looks forward to the NFL playoffs.

NASHVILLE – For the second time this season, Zach Cunningham will be a member of the visiting team when the Tennessee Titans play the Houston Texans.

He was on the winning side in the first, a 22-13 Texans’ upset at Nissan Stadium.

This time, he will be on the team that has an opportunity to win the Super Bowl. The Titans (11-5) can clinch the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory over the Texans (4-12), or – in the event of another Tennessee loss – help from other results around the NFL.

The certainty that he will be part of the postseason for the first time since 2019 (the third time in his career) makes Cunningham feel as if he is right where he needs to be.

“It’s been a blessing for me, being put in this position,” Cunningham said Thursday. “It’s something I want to take full advantage of and do what I can for the team, to help the team win.”

A third-round pick by Houston in the 2017 NFL Draft and the NFL’s leader in tackles in 2020, Cunningham was a stalwart of the Texans’ defense for more than four seasons. He was a starter in the second game he played and 66 of 72 overall. His time there ended abruptly in early December when he was waived amid reports that he routinely been late for meetings.

The Titans claimed him and quickly added him to their defense, which already was much improved over a year ago. Thus far, they have had no complaints. He quickly has established himself as a starter at inside linebacker with his physical play and in the last two games has contributed a little on special teams.

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“Zach is going to try to do everything he can to help us, whether that be left tackle on the punt team, playing special teams or playing defense for us,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “This is about where we are in our 17th game and about the things that we are trying to improve on and continue to make our charge and play our best football down the stretch.”

The last time the Titans and Texans met, Cunningham actually had one of his better games. He made 11 tackles, one of two games this season in which he had at least 10, including two third-down stops in the fourth quarter. He also forced a fumble, broke up a pass and had one tackle for a loss as one of three players who was on the field for every snap Houston’s defense played.

He shrugged off the possibility that the circumstances that surround this one will bring out his best on Sunday.

“For me, it’s going to be a fun experience going back to see a lot of guys I played with,” Cunningham said. “I’m definitely excited for that.

“… I’m usually not a very emotional guy anyway. I’m going to play how I play. That’s always been my game, no matter who I’m playing against.”

Still, he couldn’t deny the reality that he never has faced this particular team or that a personal sweep of the season series between the AFC South rivals would provide a measure of satisfaction.

“Obviously, it’s going to mean more for me to be able to clinch [the No.1 seed] going against the team that I … a month ago played with,” he said. “So, it’s definitely going to mean more for me.”