NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have some very simple math to clinch their first AFC South title since 2008 and second playoff berth in three seasons.
Sweep the Houston Texans.
The Titans (8-5) have won four straight and six of seven to have a chance at the postseason after a 2-4 start in a season salvaged after the switch at quarterback from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill. How much better this season becomes depends on what they do Sunday when they host the Texans, the first of two games between these teams in the final three weeks.
Titans cornerback Logan Ryan says the old cliche of one week at a time has helped them put together a nice streak. Ryan says that string won’t help against Houston (8-5).
“We got to handle Houston,” Ryan said. “Just like in years past we never could win in Indy, and we won in Indy. We’re due to have a bad upset in Oakland, and we didn’t. So I just think we’re taking it one week at a time, and we’ve got a big matchup with their receiving corps coming to town, and Deshaun Watson, so I think that’s enough on our plate.”
Beating the Raiders 42-2 1, combined with Houston’s surprise 38-24 loss to Denver last week is what allowed Tennessee to tie the Texans atop the division. The Texans currently have the tiebreaker thanks to a better conference record. The Titans’ first sweep in this rivalry since 2007 would give Tennessee the division title.
The stakes are equally as big for Houston, with the Texans trying to win their fourth AFC South title in six seasons under coach Bill O’Brien. The Texans host Tennessee in the regular-season finale.
“You just always want to be in your own driver’s seat and control your own destiny,” Texans linebacker D.J. Reader said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Derrick Henry is second in the NFL with a career-high 1,243 yards rushing, and he’s tied for the league lead with 13 TDs rushing. He also has a pair of TD catches. But his left hamstring has had him on the injury report now three straight weeks. Even though Henry said Thursday he will be ready Sunday, he obviously was affected last week even as he notched his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game.
Henry’s longest run was a 24-yarder, the type he might threaten to take to the end zone in previous weeks. Did the hamstring slow him down?
“I was just trying to be nice,” Henry said.
Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is coming off a season-high 120 yards receiving last week along with a touchdown. He has the NFL’s second-longest streak with 16 straight games with at least five or more receptions. The Titans will be trying to defend Hopkins with a banged-up secondary.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro currently is in the concussion protocol after being knocked out of last week’s game. Starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson missed that game with an injured foot. Cornerback LeShaun Sims practiced fully Thursday after his right ankle kept him out of the last two games. Look for Ryan to stick closely to Hopkins.
PILING UP TACKLES
Houston linebacker Zach Cunningham leads the team with a career-high 114 tackles and his 79 solo tackles are also first among the Texans. The third-year player tied a career-high with 16 tackles last week and has five games this season with at least 10 tackles. Cunningham has 39 tackles since Week 12, most in the NFL in that span.
“He’s really an outstanding player,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of Cunningham, a rookie when Vrabel was Houston’s defensive coordinator in 2017. “Just to see him grow, he’s done a fantastic job.”
The Titans rank second in the NFL averaging 31.4 points a game over the past eight weeks, and they’re also tied with San Francisco for the most big plays with 62 in that span. The Titans have 32 runs of 10 or more yards and 30 pass completions of 20 yards or longer. The 49ers have their 62 such plays in eight games compared to seven for the Titans.
NOT THIS WEEK
O’Brien gave Vrabel his first coaching job in the NFL, hiring him to work with the linebackers in 2014. Vrabel credits O’Brien with helping him prepare to be an NFL head coach. Not only are the men friends, but their wives are friends. O’Brien said he watches Vrabel’s son, Tyler, play weekly at Boston College, and they talk regularly about family.
Not this week.
“I tried to call him this morning, but he didn’t call me back,” O’Brien said.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed.
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