NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The AFC South title Tennessee hoped to be playing for Sunday now rests comfortably in Houston’s hands for a second straight season.
The Texans and Titans insist they still have lots on the line in their regular-season finale.
Houston (9-6) can finish its first season sweep of the AFC South and extend a divisional winning streak already tied for the NFL’s longest active string to 11 games. A win would cap just the third 10-win season in franchise history and first since 2012.
Better yet, the Texans could cruise into the playoffs with a fourth straight victory.
”There’s a lot out there for us in this game,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. ”I know that Tennessee wants to win. They want a winning record, and they’re going to be tough. They’re going to be very, very tough. Our guys need to show up ready to go. It’s going to be a good game.”
No thought of resting any starters for O’Brien before hosting a wild-card game.
”We’re playing to win,” O’Brien said.
The Titans’ playoff hopes ended last week along with quarterback Marcus Mariota breaking his right fibula in a 38-17 loss to Jacksonville . The final nail came hours later when Cincinnati missed a 43-yard field goal wide right, allowing Houston to clinch the division with a 12-10 win.
Yet a win scratches a lengthy to-do list for Tennessee (8-7): first winning record since 2011; ending a five-game skid to Houston; serving notice the Titans are coming for the AFC South in 2017.
”This can definitely lead us into the next season,” Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo said. ”I think we made a drastic turnaround over here, with the Titans organization especially from the years prior to this year. We did a lot of good things, so there’s definitely something to hang our hat on. We just want to finish the season right.”
Coach Mike Mularkey has reminded his Titans they haven’t beaten Houston since he’s been around. Houston has won eight of the last nine, and why not start Sunday learning how to beat divisional opponents?.
”That’s why we’re not in the playoffs, because of our division losses,” Mularkey said of going 1-4 in the AFC South. ”This is an important football game to go into the offseason to really start the 2017 season.”
Here are some things to watch Sunday when the Texans and Titans meet:
OFFENSIVE TUNE-UP: Tom Savage will start his second straight game since coming off the bench to replace Brock Osweiler. O’Brien wants Savage speeding up an offense that managed only 34 yards in the first half against Cincinnati and finished with 250. Savage also was sacked four times. Houston is averaging just 17.5 points per game, not just worst among playoff-bound teams but 29th in the NFL.
SECONDARY WOES: Playing the Titans could be just what Savage needs. Tennessee gave up 325 yards passing to Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles last week in the Titans’ lone double-digit loss of the season. Cornerback Jason McCourty missed last week with a bruised chest, and rookie LeShaun Sims couldn’t finish after sustaining a concussion. Tennessee is next to last against the pass allowing 270.9 yards per game.
CASSEL TIME: Both teams will be without the quarterbacks that started the season. Veteran Matt Cassel will make his first start in place of Mariota, the fifth time in six games Tennessee has not had its starting QB against Houston. Cassel threw for 124 yards and a TD coming off the bench last week and also had an interception.
STINGY RUN D: Not only do the Texans have the stingiest defense in the NFL, nobody has been better stopping the run since Week 8. Houston is allowing just 68 yards per game since then. Titans running back DeMarco Murray ran for 95 yards against Houston on Oct. 2 in a 27-20 win by the Texans. Rookie Derrick Henry only had three carries in that game.
TITANIC TURNAROUND: Tennessee already has won five more games than a season ago (3-13). A win Sunday would tie the biggest one-year turnaround in franchise history, matching the six-win improvement of 1967 and 1974.
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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker