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Week 17 is all about incentives, and the incentives are very clear in this game: The Titans are playing with their backs up against the wall and need to win to clinch the division — their No. 1 goal all season.
An AFC South title guarantees the Titans a home playoff game next week against one of four potential AFC opponents. A loss, and the Titans can still get into the playoffs, but only with some help from one of the teams they’re competing with. And if those teams all win, the Titans will miss out entirely.
Houston has no such stakes. The Texans are 4-11 and playing for nothing but pride and draft position at this point. They started the season 1-6 and fired head coach Bill O’Brien after a long stay together.
The Texans have managed to hang around games without finishing the job, tallying seven losses this season by one score, becoming one of those teams that sticks around but finds a way to lose in the end.
The Texans are trying to end their season on a better note, while the Titans are hoping to keep their season alive. Who will come out on top?
The Titans can look invincible at times, and at other times they’ve practically been a doormat.
The Titans rank third with 30.0 points per game and were No. 1 before last week’s tepid showing in the snow. They’ve scored 30 or more points nine times already and hung 42 on these Texans a couple months ago in an overtime win.
Tennessee has been all offense and not much else. The Titans rank third in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA but are bottom-five on defense and special teams.
The Titans have led a balanced attack offensively — they rank in the top four in rushing and passing DVOA. Derrick Henry wears defenses down as the game goes along, and Ryan Tannehill continues to dial it up and hit A.J. Brown and Corey Davis on big pass plays down the field.
When the Titans can control the game script and play their game, this Art Smith offense can put up a ton of points.
The problem is that they continue to need to do just that, because the Titans have also allowed 30 or more points seven times. They gave up 40 last Sunday night to a Packers team that looked like it could have chosen its number.
The Browns put up 41 on the Titans a month ago, with most of the points coming in the first half. These Texans scored 36 in Nashville in October. The Titans have been especially bad in pass defense, rating among the worst teams in the league.
It’s very simple with Tennessee: They don’t play well on defense or special teams, so they’re going to have to hang a big number on the opponent to win.
In some ways, the Texans are much like the Titans. Houston has had some very good moments offensively but ranks even worse defensively. The Texans just don’t have enough talent left on defense, and the other thing that separates the two teams is Derrick Henry.
Deshaun Watson has been brilliant throwing the ball for Houston, but the Texans can’t run the ball — not like Tennessee, and not much at all.
The Texans rarely get blown out, because even when the defense gives up big points, all that does is push this team to do what it’s already best at: Passing the football.
After two ugly losses to start the season, the Texans had only two more the rest of the season by more than one score. Instead, they’ve been much like the Chargers, playing entertaining football and putting up points but always finding a way to lose in the end.
The October game in Tennessee was the perfect example of this trend. Houston’s bad defense gave up two quick touchdowns and the Texans were down 21-10 at the half. But Houston ripped things open in the second half with a 26-8 run to take the lead with under two minutes left and even had a 2-point attempt that would have effectively ended the game.
But because they’re the Texans, they missed the 2-point conversion and gave up a game-tying touchdown drive to the Titans with four seconds left, then never touched the ball again as the beleaguered defense gave up the winning touchdown on the opening drive in overtime.
That was Houston’s season in a nutshell.
This feels like a seriously dangerous spot for Tennessee.
The Titans have played down to their opponents often this season, while the Texans continue to hang around and give themselves a a chance to win — or lose, it seems — late.
Tennessee’s pass defense has been miserable this season, and Watson should be able to pass all over this team and keep up with the Titans scoring, just like Houston did the last time around.
The pressure is all on Tennessee here, while Houston can play loose and relaxed as the potential spoiler. And while you would think teams with all the incentive to win in Week 17 may have been very successful in the past, the opposite is actually true.
This is a trap spot for Tennessee. The Titans need to win or catch a loss from the Ravens, Colts, Browns or Dolphins. Three of those teams are double-digit favorites and could be coasting by halftime. The pressure on Tennessee will only increases from there if this game stays close.
My spidey senses are tingling. Houston has hung around in games all season, and Tennessee’s defense is vulnerable. I’m playing the Texans at +7.5 to keep this thing too close for comfort, and I’ll sprinkle a small portion on the moneyline upset too to see if they can really blow up the playoff picture.
Picks: Texans +7.5; ML +290