Reasons to Believe: Titans vs. Texans

David Boclair

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans had one game at the end of last season to determine their fate.

This time they have two.

Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium will be the first of two between the AFC South rivals over the final three weeks of the regular season. Either team will win the division if it wins both games.

It’s as simple as that, just as it was in 2018 when Tennessee faced another division rival, Indianapolis, in Week 17 with the final NFL playoff spot at stake. Things did not work out well for the Titans then (they lost 33-17) but now they have another chance to handle their business on their own.

Three reasons to believe the Titans will win Sunday

Stay on the field: Houston’s defense is the NFL’s worst on third down, based on conversion rate. Opponents have moved the chains 48 percent of the time (80 of 165) when the Texans had the chance to force a punt. Three opponents, including two of the last three, have converted 60 percent or more. Tennessee’s offense converted a season-high 72.7 percent Sunday at Oakland (8-for-11) and have been 50 percent or better three of Ryan Tannehill’s seven starts.

Sidelined star: No one among the Titans will be disappointed about the fact that Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is on injured reserve with a pectoral injury sustained in October. In 13 career games against the Titans, Watt has 17 sacks, eight forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He’s even caught a touchdown pass. Tennessee is 3-10 in those games. Injuries have forced Watt to miss three games against the Titans during his career, and Tennessee won two of them.

Slow starters: The Titans’ offense has a well-earned reputation for starting slow. Opponents have scored first in 10 of 13 games and have outscored Tennessee by 19 in the first quarter (67-48). Houston has been even worse in that regard. The Texans are next-to-last in the NFL with 30 first-quarter points, fewer than half the number they have allowed (65). Tennessee has shown it can overcome early deficits, but this might be one time they don’t have to do so.

Three reasons to believe the Titans will lose Sunday

Try to keep up: The Texans are one of nine teams with at least 10 pass plays of 40-plus yards and two of their top three wide receivers, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, average better than 14 yards per reception, numbers easily explained by the high-end speed those players possess. The Titans’ secondary will be without cornerbacks Adoreé Jackson (foot injury) and Malcolm Butler (wrist injury-injured reserve) – likely their two fastest pass defenders – and it will be up to the backups to keep up with Houston’s pair of speedsters.

On the mark: Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson (pictured) has completed 73.3 percent of his passes in three career games against Tennessee. That is his highest percentage against any opponent he has faced more than once. He also has thrown eight touchdown passes, more than against any other team and he has run for 138 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries. In short, the Titans have not had an answer to Watson since he got the job. (Hear what Mike Vrabel to say about Watson in the above video).

Sure tackler: Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham leads the NFL with 39 tackles over the past three weeks, including a career-high 16 (including two tackles for loss) last week against Denver. A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2017, Cunningham already has a career-high 108 tackles for the season with three games to go. He also has recovered two fumbles. His ability to diagnose run plays and make tackles will be critical.

The bottom line

These teams score points in different ways. Houston likes the big play (it has scored a touchdown of 35 yards or more in four straight games) while Tennessee is more about efficiency and consistency that eventually wears on an opponent.

Both are likely to score their share in this one. Tennessee wins if it forces the Texans to stay patient and drive the field. Houston wins if its defense is stout on first and second down and forces the Titans into a bunch of third-and-long situations.