When Houston and Tennessee met three weeks ago, the game was mired by an ugly brawl between Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Texans receiver Andre Johnson.
With both teams essentially out of the playoff picture, one of the biggest storylines of Sunday’s matchup in Tennessee is the position battle between these stars.
The Texans (5-8) and Titans (5-8) are both three games back of AFC South-leading Jacksonville and will be eliminated from postseason contention if the Jaguars win just one of their final three games. Houston and Tennessee also would be out of the playoff picture with one more loss.
Both the Texans and the Titans looked like they would be making playoff pushes with the way they began the season, but Houston has dropped six of seven and Tennessee has lost six in a row.
"Obviously, we started this season with the hopes of being a playoff team for the first time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "It’s very, very difficult right now. We need to go to Tennessee and find a way to win a game."
If the Titans lose this week, it will be their longest skid as a franchise since dropping 11 straight in 1994 as the Houston Oilers. Jeff Fisher, whose job security has come into question, was promoted to head coach after the sixth loss of that skid.
"Bottom line is we’re getting beat and we’re not winning games and it’s not acceptable," Fisher said a day after last Thursday’s 30-28 loss to Indianapolis.
The Texans’ only victory in the last seven weeks was against Tennessee on Nov. 28, but the 20-0 final score wasn’t the most memorable part of the game.
Late in the fourth quarter, Johnson and Finnegan were ejected for fighting. One play after the two got into a mild shoving match, Finnegan and Johnson immediately started brawling off the snap of the ball at the line of scrimmage. Johnson ripped off Finnegan’s helmet and landed at least two punches to Finnegan’s head and neck.
Both men were fined $25,000 by the NFL but not suspended.
Fisher plans to put Finnegan, an All-Pro in 2008, on the four-time Pro Bowl receiver throughout the game again, and he isn’t planning on having a special talk with his player before kickoff about keeping his composure.
"I don’t think he got drawn into anything last time around," Fisher said. "I think maybe someone needs to talk to Andre Johnson about that. Cortland is going to line up and play and do his best to help us win and play good defense."
Johnson caught nine passes and a touchdown in the first meeting, and has 34 receptions for 490 yards with five TDs in the last four games in the series with the Texans winning three.
Johnson had another big game for Houston in Monday’s 34-28 overtime loss to Baltimore, catching nine passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. His five-yard TD reception with 21 seconds left in regulation helped send the game to overtime.
The Texans, who rallied from 21 points down midway through the third quarter, couldn’t complete the comeback, however, as Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson intercepted Matt Schaub’s pass and returned it 12 yards for a game-ending touchdown. Schaub finished with a franchise-record 62 pass attempts and 393 yards.
Schaub didn’t need to throw as much against the Titans last month, passing for just 178 yards, as the Texans controlled the game with their rushing attack.
Arian Foster, who notched his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season Monday, ran for 143 yards on 30 carries against Tennessee. The Titans haven’t had much luck stopping the run lately, allowing an average of 160.0 yards in their last four games.
Tennessee was held to a season-low 162 yards in the first meeting, including Chris Johnson’s career-low five yards on seven carries, but he ran for 111 last week and the offense appears to have a better chance of moving the ball in the rematch.
With Kerry Collins sitting out in Houston with a strained left calf, rookie Rusty Smith made his first NFL start and threw three interceptions – all to cornerback Glover Quin – and finished with a passer rating of 26.7.
Collins has looked much more efficient since returning to the lineup, throwing for 244 yards with three touchdowns in the loss to the Colts.