(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, both 8-5, share the division lead in the AFC South. Each team has three regular-season games remaining heading into Week 15, and two of them will be against each other. The first matchup happens this Sunday in Nashville, and the second two weeks after in Houston.
The Texans and Titans are quite literally playing for the division. Winning both head-to-head matchups in December would assure that team a division title, with the loser drastically reducing their playoff chances. Splitting those head-to-head matchups would complicate things significantly, with the final playoff field depending on each team’s outcome in that third game. (The Texans play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15; the Titans play the New Orleans Saints.) What the Buffalo Bills (9-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) and even the New England Patriots (10-3) do in their remaining three games would also factor in.
The Texans and Titans, of course, would prefer to win rather than pin their playoff hopes on the fortunes of others. Houston’s performance has been a bit puzzling of late, with a statement win over the Patriots followed by a letdown loss to the Denver Broncos. Tennessee, one of the NFL’s hotter teams, has put up 30-plus points in each of its for straight wins.
Despite their unsightly loss to the Broncos, the Texans have been one of the AFC’s better teams this season. Deshaun Watson remains one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, ranking in or near the top 10 in any number of categories. He’s completed 67.7 percent of his attempts, averaging 263.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per reception. Watson has tossed 24 touchdowns passes on the season against nine interceptions. Seven of those TDs were hauled in by DeAndre Hopkins, whose 93 receptions put him second in the NFL.
The ground game has also been productive, with Carlos Hyde averaging 71.2 yards per game and approaching 1000 yards on the season and Duke Johnson averaging 30 and kicking in 390 more per game. Add in Watson’s willingness to take off when a play breaks downs, and the Texans become a top-10 rushing offense.
A similar level of production in the air and ground game didn’t lead to points against the Broncos, however. The Texans trailed 31-3 at halftime and 38-3 in the third quarter. They spent the second half making the game look more competitive than it actually was. Perhaps more concerning than an offense that stalled for a half is a defense that let the Broncos, behind a rookie quarterback, put up 38 points. Drew Lock completed 22 of 27 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns; he led scoring drives on the team’s first five possessions.
The Texans’ defense, already a lower-tier unit, will face a stiffer challenge in Nashville. The Titans’ offense is humming behind Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. Tannehill, who took over for Marcus Mariota in the team’s Week 6 shutout loss to the Broncos, has exceeded expectations as a starter. He’s completed 73.4 percent of his passes this season, among the league’s best, and averaged a league-leading 9.8 yards per reception. The Titans are 6-1 with him as a starter, after going 2-4 under Mariota. Tannehill has even emerged as a fringe candidate for MVP.
A strong running game, thanks to Henry, has certainly helped the Titans turn things around. While the bruising back has been productive all season, tallying 1243 yards and 15 TDs while averaging a hefty five yards per carry, he’s turned it up over the last month or so. In his last four outings, Henry has averaged 150 yards rushing per game and seven yards per carry. (As if that weren’t impressive enough, he’s played the last two games with a sore hamstring as well.) The Titans have averaged over 37 points per game over the last four games.
With that kind of production, a defense can enjoy a larger margin of error. The Titans sit in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of yards allowed, but skew a little better for points. They’re certainly susceptible to the occasional big game. Patrick Mahomes torched them for 442 yards and three touchdowns, and Jacoby Brissett put up 319 yards.
Watson and a Texans team looking for redemption are certainly capable of finding it against this Titans defense. Tannehill, Henry and the Titans could return the favor.
The Texans play the Titans Sunday @ 1 p.m. ET on CBS.