1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Titans -3, Over/Under: 50
The race for the AFC South is heating up as the Houston Texans look to get back on track as they play host to the surging Tennessee Titans in the first of two meetings taking place within the final three weeks, this one from Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. Though they entered 2019 as the reigning Division Champions and have spent of the campaign in First Place, the Texans (8-5, T-1st in AFC South) have been arguably the most maddeningly inconsistent of the contenders in the AFC, threatening their bid for a fourth Postseason Appearance in five years. Indeed, this has been a team in flux from the jump, with Houston dismissing their General Manager, Brian Gaine, with their Head Coach, Bill O’Brien, effectively replacing him in that capacity within the Front Office, a change that has in turn led to a wealth of moves; O’Brien shipped out wantaway Defensive End, Jadeveon Clowney, in a deal with the Seahawks, while acquiring the services of promising young Left Tackle, Larmey Tunsil, along with veteran Receiver, Kenny Stills (32 REC, 469 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 2 TD), also adding Backfield Depth with the additions of Tailbacks, Duke Johnson (75 CAR, 390 YDS, 5.2 Y/C, 1 TD) and Carlos Hyde (198 CAR, 926 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 4 TD). However, that wouldn’t be the end of the comings and goings, with a pair of young Cornerbacks who had worn out their welcome with their previous teams, Gareon Conley (42 TKL, 1 INT, 8 PD) with the Raiders and Vernon Hargreaves (54 TKL, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 TD, 6 PD) with the Buccaneers, arriving Midseason. Though these acquisitions were all meant to address persistent weaknesses along the roster, O’Brien was met with a great deal of criticism due to his willingness to part ways with premium picks for these players. In the end, can we really fault him for thinking like a coach rather than an executive? After all, his focus (and his job security) remains tied to immediate results, not necessarily what may or may not happen in the future. With so much change happening within such a small window of time, it’s really no surprise that the Texans have been a team that while capable of showing their full potential, has also proved be one that is still very much trying to find their way, which was evident in their latest showing, a disappointing 24-38 defeat at home to the Denver Broncos. A week after handling the reigning Super Bowl Champion, New England Patriots, 28-22 at home on a Sunday Night, O’Brien’s troops looked unprepared to deal with a side featuring a Rookie Quarterback making his first start. The Texans fell behind 0-21 early, allowing the Broncos to score on their first five drives of the day, heading into Halftime down 3-31 as they were booed off the field by their own fans. With the visiting side stretching their lead to 38-3 following their first drive of the Second Half, the hosts awoke to add three meaningless Touchdowns to soften the beating. In the end, Defensive Coordinator, Romeo Crennel’s, charges made Denver’s Rookie Signal-Caller, Drew Lock, look like John Elway, completing an efficient 22-of-27 Passes for 309 Yards, Three Touchdowns and an Interception, with another Rookie, Tight End Noah Fant, reeling in Four receptions for 113 Yards and a score. Houston would go on to post 414 Total Yards though much of that would come in the Second Half, with Deshaun Watson (67.7%, 3,425 YDS, 6.75 NY/A, 24 TD, 9 INT, 71.7 QBR) struggling on his way to completing 28-of-50 Passes for 292 Yards, a Touchdown and a pair of Interceptions, while rushing for another Forty-Four Yards and Two Touchdowns on Six Carries. All-Pro Receiver, DeAndre Hopkins (93 REC, 1,023 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 7 TD), led the way with Seven Receptions on Thirteen targets for 120 Yards and a Touchdown, with Hyde totaling Seventy-Three Rushing Yards on Fourteen Carries. The Secondary, which has been racked by injuries throughout the term, could do very little to slow down the 29th Ranked Passing Attack in the league, which is troubling when you consider that this unit is finally starting to return to full strength following the healthy return of Sophomore Safety, Justin Reid (66 TKL, 1, TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 3 PD), and Cornerback, Bradley Roby (31 TKL, 2 QBH, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 5 PD). Unsurprisingly, this has been an area in which the Texans have struggled immensely in 2019, ranking 27th against the Pass (265.8), 28th in Passing Touchdowns allowed (28), Interceptions (7), and First Downs allowed (179), 24th in Net Yards per Attempt (6.8), 27th in Sacks (26), and 31st in Pressure Percentage (18.3%), which is very disappointing considering they’ve blitzed 31.3% of their Defensive Snaps, twelfth-most in the league. Of course, this has only gotten worse following the trade of Clowney and the season-ending injury of three-time Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt (24 TKL, 4 TFL, 20 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), who tore his Left Pectoral Muscle back in late October. Following his injury, Houston has yielded 248.4 Yards per Game through the air, including 300 in back-to-back games for the first time in roughly a calendar year. All in all, while sporting some serious top-end talent, this remains a very flawed football team, which lacks the requisite chemistry to legitimately challenge for a Lombardi Trophy. With that said, they can wrap up the AFC South for the second consecutive season if they can manage to get the best of the surging Titans, who are led by a familiar face, Mike Vrabel, who had spent four years from 2014 to 2018 as a member of the Texans Coaching Staff, even taking over as Defensive Coordinator in his final year with the club. Vrabel, Crennel, and O’Brien know each other intimately, which only makes their all the more challenging and fitting in these final three weeks of play.
Meanwhile, the hottest team that nobody is talking about is the Titans (8-5, T-1st in AFC South), who have now won six of their last seven games, including four straight en route to pulling into a tie for First Place within the Division with their opponent today, the Texans. These last three weeks will be very telling of Tennessee, who in going 9-7 in each of the last three campaigns has existed on the periphery of the Playoffs for a while now. Now in his second year on the job, Head Coach, Mike Vrabel, appears to have this team primed to take the leap that they have long sought, though the remainder of their schedule is far from accommodating; in addition to two meetings with Houston, they’ll play host to the 10-3 New Orleans Saints before heading to NRG Stadium for the Season Finale. They’re 3-3 in their last six meetings with the Texans, with all three of those victories coming at home in Nashville. However, there is something different about this time around, and that’s a new face under Center, where Ryan Tannehill (73.4%, 1,993 YDS, 8.00 NY/A, 15 TD, 5 INT, 60.5 QBR) has successfully supplanted the incumbent Marcus Mariota (59.1%, 1,179 YDS, 5.53 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT, 30.8 QBR), with the Offense responding in the most positive of ways. Given his troubles with staying healthy and persistent struggles under a multitude of Offensive Coordinators during his five years with the Franchise, Mariota was finally benched for good after just six starts, with Vrabel opting to go with Tannehill, who was signed in the Offseason following his release from the Miami Dolphins. It was a gamble by the former Super Bowl Champion Linebacker, who effectively closed the door on the underperforming No. 2 Overall Pick from the 2015 NFL Draft, particularly when you consider Tannehill’s own credentials for being the Starter; the 31-Year Old, a former 8th Overall Pick himself in 2012, had been largely mediocre in six seasons with the Dolphins, going 42-46 from 2012 to 2018 completing 62.8% of his Attempts for an average of 232.2 Yards on just 6.01 Net Yards per Attempt, with 123 Touchdowns in comparison to Seventy-Five Interceptions, while posting a Passer Rating of 87.0. However, after leading Miami to their first Playoff Birth since 2008 in 2015, his tenure would become derailed by injuries, missing the entirety of 2017 with a torn ACL along with five games in last season, developing the reputation of being fragile within the organization, ultimately sealing his exit. So with that said, while the transition from Mariota to Tannehill was understandable, particularly given the former’s struggles to begin the term, success with the latter was far from guaranteed. Thankfully for the franchise, Vrabel has appeared to have struck gold, with the Titans going 6-1 since the change at Quarterback, as Tannehill has played some of the most inspired football of his career. During this stretch, the veteran has completed 72.7% of his Passes for an average of 264.0 Yards on a whopping 9.12 Net Yards per Attempt, with Fifteen Touchdowns opposed to Four Interceptions, while rushing for another 143 Yards and three scores on Thirty-One Attempts. Indeed, the coaching Staff and General Manager, Jon Robinson, have been so impressed with him that they’re leaning towards keeping him in Nashville long-term, though we feel that that will largely depend on how strong he and the team finish over the next three weeks. Either way, the Offense has absolutely flourished with his presence under Center, particularly during this current four-game winning streak in which they’ve become the most explosive Passing Attack in the league. Over the past four games, Tennessee has averaged a staggering 37.5 Points on 421.5 Total Yards, including 231.8 Yards through the air on 10.78 Net Yards per Attempt, totaling Nine Passing Touchdowns to just One lone Interception. Furthermore, no team in the league has been more effective inside the Red Zone, scoring a Touchdown on a very healthy 73.0% of their trips to that area of the field. For the second consecutive season, Derrick Henry (250 CAR, 1,243 YDS, 5.0 Y/C, 13 TD) has caught fire late, averaging 148.8 Rushing Yards on an explosive 6.97 Yards per Carry over the past four outings, with the former Heisman Tailback having pushing his total to a career-high 1,243 Yards thus far with a league-best Thirteen Touchdowns to his credit. The Receiving Corps is starting to develop as well, with Rookie Wideout, A.J. Brown (39 REC, 779 YDS, 20.0 Y/R, 6 TD), looking like a steal at 51st Overall, leading the team with 779 Yards and Six Touchdowns. In fact, he had the game of his young career in last weekend’s 42-21 annihilation of the Oakland Raiders, reeling in a career-high 153 Yards and Two Touchdowns on Five Receptions, including a 91-Yard score early in the Second Quarter. In fact, just about everyone enjoyed a highlight or two at Oakland, with the visitors mounting a season-high 552 Total Yards against the beleaguered hosts, outscoring them 21-0 in the Second Half after the game was tied 21-21 at Halftime. Tannehill calmly completed 21-of-27 Passes for 391 Yards, Three Touchdowns and his first Interception in over a month, while Henry rumbled his way towards 103 Yards and a pair of scores on just Eight Carries, with ten different players logging a Reception. The Defense was solid, relegating the home side to 356 Total Yards, and making the requisite adjustments to shut them out in the Second Half; after logging Twenty-One Points on 198 Total Yards though the first thirty minutes of play, the Raiders couldn’t get on the scoreboard and managed just Eighty-Seven Yards on their next five drives in the Second Half before putting together a 71-Yard Drive ending on Downs with the game well out of hand.