The Houston Texans need to be nearly perfect from here on out to have any chance at the playoffs. They’ll also need Ryan Fitzpatrick to step up.
If the Texans are to make a last-ditched bid for the postseason, they’ll have to succeed through another quarterback change as Fitzpatrick resumes the starting role Sunday against the visiting Tennessee Titans.
Houston (5-6) stands as a longshot in the playoff picture but has a chance to put itself in the mix with four AFC South games remaining. One is against first-place Indianapolis, which is 7-5, but two are against league-worst Jacksonville and this one is at home against a Tennessee team which has lost five in a row.
However, any potential playoff run will be without quarterback Ryan Mallett, who suffered a torn right pectoral muscle in last Sunday’s 22-13 loss to Cincinnati and will miss the rest of the season.
Fitzpatrick was benched in favor of Mallett following a Week 9 loss to Philadelphia in which he completed 13 of 27 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He won his first two starts without getting picked off or being sacked, but he had eight interceptions and was sacked 20 times in his next seven, going 2-5.
"I don’t think so," Fitzpatrick said when asked whether it is difficult to move from the bench to the starter position. "I think it’s like riding a bike.
"That’s what being a quarterback is. That’s what kind of my whole career has been."
Fitzpatrick’s only win in his past five games came against the Titans, for whom he made nine starts last season. That’s also the only time in his last seven games he didn’t commit a turnover, going 19 of 35 for 227 yards and a touchdown in a 30-16 road win Oct. 26.
Neither Fitzpatrick nor Mallett had been particularly successful in igniting a Texans passing attack that features receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. Houston ranks 28th with 207.5 passing yards per game.
The primary source of Houston’s offense has been the running game, consisting of Arian Foster and Alfred Blue. Foster, averaging 102.8 rushing yards per game and 5.1 per carry, has missed Houston’s last two games with a groin injury but could return Sunday.
"I think there is a potential that he could play," coach Bill O’Brien said. "He feels better today. Hopefully he’ll be out there at practice. Hopefully that’s something that he’ll be able to help us on game day."
Blue has performed admirably in Foster’s absence, rushing 52 times over the past two contests for 202 yards. The Texans are averaging an AFC-best 137.3 rushing yards, and they’re facing a Titans run defense which has allowed more than 150 in four straight games.
Tennessee (2-9) also is badly struggling to run the ball with 88.8 yards per game. Rookie Bishop Sankey has not surpassed 61 rushing yards in any game despite getting the bulk of the workload in recent weeks, providing little support to Zach Mettenberger.
The rookie quarterback has thrown for seven touchdowns and an average of 271.5 yards in four games since taking over as the starter, but he’s lost them all. He completed 20 of 39 passes for 345 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in last Sunday’s 43-24 loss to Philadelphia.
"I think I remember Peyton Manning being 3-13 his first year," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Not that I’m saying that it’s OK not to win games. We need to win a game as a football team, and that would certainly help with Zach, but he’s making progress in areas that you like to see from a young quarterback."
Mettenberger’s starting debut came against Houston, and he struggled in the first half but would finish 27 of 41 for 299 yards and two TDs.
J.J. Watt sacked him twice and imitated the rookie by taking a mock "selfie." Mettenberger had posted photos of himself to his social media accounts prior to his first start.
"It’s just kind of a reminder, this is the National Football League, not high school," Watt said following the Week 8 win. "Welcome to the show."
Tennessee enters the rematch having dropped nine of 10 and mired in its longest losing streak since a six-game skid in 2010.
"It’s not a lot of fun," Whisenhunt said. "I enjoy working with these guys. I enjoy being here. The fans have been good with me, but it’s not fun.
"I love doing this job, but you still feel sick when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do."
The Titans have lost four of the last five meetings, including the past two in Houston.