One of the more impressive mid season turnarounds in the NFL this year was orchestrated by the Tennessee Titans. The Titans started the season with Marcus Mariota at quarterback and struggled mightily. Tennessee opened the season 2-4 SU/ATS and much of the problem was the ineffective play of Mariota. In Week 6, the Titans were shut out in an ugly performance at Denver and it was then that head coach Mike Vrabel made the move to Ryan Tannehill as the starting quarterback.
Tannehill revitalized the Tennessee offense almost immediately. In the first six games of the year the Titans averaged 16.3 PPG. In the 9 games with Tannehill as the starter they’ve averaged 29.8 PPG. More importantly, they began to win. Tennessee won 6 of Tannehill’s first 7 starts though they’ve dropped back to back games against tough opposition over the past two weeks. After being cast aside by the Miami Dolphins and suffering from knee and shoulder injuries in 2017 and 2018 there’s no doubt that Tannehill should win the NFL’s ‘Comeback Player of the Year’.
Now the Titans and Tannehill have a chance to add another improbable accomplishment by making the playoffs. Tennessee and Pittsburgh are both 8-7 but currently the Titans are in due to a better strength of victory. They also have their postseason fate in their hands and a victory here will clinch the #6 seed. Although there are several scenarios in which they could make the playoffs with a loss assuming that Pittsburgh loses at Baltimore. That’s not necessarily a fait accompli. The Ravens have already clinched the best record in the NFL and will be resting starters. Robert Griffin III has been named the starting quarterback for Baltimore and Lamar Jackson, DT Brandon Williams, guard Marshal Yanda and safety Earl Thomas III have all been confirmed ‘OUT’ for ‘rest’. Running back Mark Ingram has a calf strain and won’t play though he’s expected to be back for the playoffs.
The expectation is that Houston will employ a similar strategy as Baltimore and keep their key contributors on the sidelines. That’s the expectation although the Texans can improve their #4 seeding with a win here. The catch is that they’ll need some help from the Los Angeles Chargers–the Texans need to win and the Chiefs need to lose to move up to the #3 spot so the prevailing wisdom is that Houston coach Bill O’Brien will conclude that the downside risk of injury isn’t worth it. The oddsmakers and bettors think that is what will transpire as this game opened with Houston a -1 point home favorite and has moved all the way to Tennessee -3.5.
To some degree, the decision is out of O’Brien’s hands. Starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is dealing with several nagging injuries including a sore ankle and a back injury that has limited him in practice this week. Wide receivers Will Fuller (groin) and DeAndre Hopkins (illness) have missed practice. Receiver Kenny Stills (knee) was limited in practice as was lineman Laremy Tunsil. Even if O’Brien felt it important to move up to the #3 seed it is extremely doubtful that he’d play his injured starters to do so.
Typically, playing a team in a ‘must win’ situation isn’t a good idea but the dynamic here is different. Houston doesn’t need this game and will most likely play their backups. Former Alabama QB AJ McCarron isn’t a bad quarterback but there’s still a huge dropoff from Deshaun Watson. Tennessee outgained Houston when the teams played in Nashville two weeks ago (432-374) but got a few bad bounces. With running back Derrick Henry upgraded to ‘probable’ there’s no reason that the Titans can’t avenge their previous loss and make the playoffs against Houston’s reserves. We’ll also go ‘Over’ the total–Texans have gone ‘Over’ in 8 of 9 since Tannehill took over at QB.