Two weeks ago, running back Derrick Henry broke his foot in a win over the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans' season was over.
At least that was the narrative the national media was telling.
Now, after consecutive wins over the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, the Titans may very well have an easy road to the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Tennessee is entering the easy part of its schedule, highlighted by two cupcake games against the Houston Texans this week and Week 18. Featuring the worst offense (280.1 yards per game) and the third-worst defense (385.9 yards allowed per game) in the NFL, Houston scares absolutely nobody. But Titans head coach Mike Vrabel isn’t ready to write off Sunday’s game as an easy win.
“When you talk about teams in your division, you tend to have a pretty good feel for who they are and what the personnel is,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “That is new for us just with the way the team is constructed. We will have to learn personnel. Some of the scheme is different, there is some carryover with them, but it is going to be critical that we learn who these guys are defensively. It is a different style defense than what we are used to against the Texans.”
The Titans defense appears to be firing on all cylinders with a top-tier pass rush that has the fifth-most sacks in the NFL and a secondary that features a true lockdown cornerback in Kristian Fulton and two safeties playing some of the best football in the league right now in Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker.
If Houston has any success offensively, it will have to come from the improvisation of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who’s played in just three games this year due to a hamstring injury.
Taylor looked out of sorts against the Miami Dolphins — his first appearance since returning from injury — throwing three interceptions and barely completing 55 percent of his passes. However, his elusiveness and ability to scramble out of the pocket and make tight throws on the run is what makes the Titans’ pass rush versus Taylor the matchup to watch.
“The ability to scramble; the ability to mix in whether it is the [run-pass option] game or him running with the football,” Vrabel said of what makes Taylor dangerous. “I think that will always be something that is critical to understand with Tyrod, who has won games in this league. We will have to try to make sure we are good on the edges and when we rush.
“It is probably a different style each week and his style is such that if all the rush lanes aren’t sound, he will be able to put the ball away and gain yards. Everybody has their back turned covering man-to-man so if we are reckless in our rush, he can make you pay.”
Here’s a further look at Sunday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
Name a team in the NFL hotter than the Titans. I’ll wait.
While quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been solid through 10 games, he hasn’t quite had that one true dominant game that one could look at and say Tannehill was the reason they won. That could change on Sunday.
The Texans defense allows the third-highest average yards per pass play (8.1), and they’re tied for the 10th-most touchdowns passes surrendered this year (16). Quarterbacks also have a 96.5 passer rating when facing the Houston secondary.
Although the Texans have allowed the eighth-fewest receptions (193) this year, they are one of the more big-play-prone units in the league. Receivers are averaging 12.1 yards per reception against them (tied for third-most), which bodes well for receiver A.J. Brown, who’s been a notorious Texans killer in his brief career.
Through four games against Houston, Brown has 27 receptions for 447 yards and five touchdowns. He’s had 100 yards receiving in three of those four games.
“I try to control what I can control,” Brown said. “I can’t throw myself the ball or anything like that. I can just get open. If I have to clear it out for someone else, like Marcus [Johnson] had a big day this past Sunday, I would do it again. It is all about trying to get to 9-2. One week at a time. That is the only thing that I care about. That is the production, winning.”
If Brown is anywhere close to his normal production against Houston, it could be a long day for the Texans secondary.
Why the Texans can win
Virtually no one is giving Houston a chance in this game. And why should they? The Texans can’t run the ball — they have 682 combined rushing yards this season, worst in the NFL — and they have the third-fewest pass yards in the league as well (1,839).
But if ever there was a week for Houston to catch Tennessee off guard, it would be this week. The Titans are riding a six-game win streak and just finished the most brutal part of their schedule, one where they weren’t supposed to win more than two of those games.
Tennessee is tied for the best record in the NFL, and with the AFC South all but sewn up, it’s feasible the Titans could fall into a trap game much like they did in Week 4 against the New York Jets.
I don’t see that happening, but given the parity of the NFL, never say never.
“It is a week-by-week league,” Tannehill said. “You have to go out and perform each and every week. [The Texans] have some talented players on defense, they can make plays, they can put pressure on you. … We have to attack this week with urgency.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_