The last time the Titans and Texans met, Houston gave Tennessee such a spanking that it probably had a hard time sitting down for the next week.
Rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson threw for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth during the rout in Week 4. The Texans outgained the Titans 445-195, forcing five turnovers and feasting on an opponent playing without its quarterback in the second half.
The 57-14 final score represented the highest single-game point total in Texans’ history and was the most points scored in an NFL game since Seattle hung 58 on Arizona five years ago. It was one of the worst losses in Tennessee history.
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The Titans get their chance for revenge Sunday at Nissan Stadium, this time against a greatly reduced opponent. Since that game, the Texans (4-7) have lost Watson, running back D’Onta Foreman, defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries.
Watson’s non-contact ACL tear essentially ended Houston’s hopes of a third straight AFC South title. Tom Savage has been a turnover machine since replacing Watson, tossing two interceptions and losing a fumble Monday night in a 23-16 defeat at Baltimore.
In six games this year, Savage has lost seven fumbles and thrown five picks. Coach Bill O’Brien on Tuesday said the team will have to consider alternatives if Savage can’t master the art of ball security.
“I’m really frustrated, to be honest with you,” Savage said. “There’s really no words for it. I don’t want to go out there and throw picks. That’s not my goal. It’s called the NFL. You’re not going to win games turning the ball over.”
His counterpart this week can attest to that. Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota has been unusually loose with the football the last two games. After tossing four interceptions in a 40-17 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, Mariota threw two more last week in his team’s 20-16 victory at Indianapolis.
While Mariota is completing 63.1 percent of his passes, he also has more picks (12) than touchdowns (9), not the stats one would hope for from an ascending third-year starter. However, Titans coach Mike Mularkey hasn’t lost faith in his quarterback.
“Just watch how he continues to make throws after interceptions,” Mularkey said. “There’s a lot of guys that can’t overcome those, and I have yet to see him let that affect his play. He made some plays to help us win the game those last two drives.”
Mariota hit passes of 10 and 19 yards to Derrick Henry and Corey Davis on the go-ahead touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter last week. Then he hit DeMarco Murray for eight yards and a critical first down with 2:49 left as Tennessee (7-4) milked the last 3:54 to preserve its second come-from-behind win over the Colts.
Teamed with Jacksonville’s 27-24 loss at Arizona, which won on a 57-yard field goal from the ageless Phil Dawson as time expired, the result put the Titans back in a tie for first place in the AFC South with the Jaguars.
Tennessee presently holds the tiebreaker thanks to its 37-16 victory over Jacksonville in Week 2, and also hosts the Jaguars on New Year’s Eve in a game that might decide the division title.
“We have a lot of football to do,” Mularkey said. “We just have to win one … at a time. I’ll say this, and I’ve said this to our team a number of times. You can’t be concerned about what any other team in this league does. If we win, everything will take care of itself.”
The Titans’ closing schedule seems conducive towards winning. Winnable road games with Arizona and 1-10 San Francisco follow before they end the year at home with the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville. Tennessee is 4-1 at home and won eight of its last nine in front of its own fans, dating back to last year.
Still, the Titans have things to fix down the homestretch. Their running game slipped to 13th in the league after being among the best last year, and the inability to consistently produce touchdowns has left them too reliant on kicker Ryan Succop for scoring.
But Tennessee did crank up the pass rush last week, sacking the mobile Jacoby Brissett eight times. With Houston perhaps down to its fourth left tackle after an injury to Chris Clark Monday night, it may be up to Kendall Lamm to deal with the likes of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan.
O’Brien isn’t sure right tackle Julien Davenport (shoulder) will be able to play on Sunday, either.
“There’s other things we can do at that position, but those two guys are still on the injury report, there’s no doubt about it,” O’Brien said.