Titans look to end difficult season on high note

Chris Johnson and the Titans will try to avenge a September loss to the Texans, one of only two wins for Houston this season.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If not making the playoffs is akin to going nowhere, then the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texas arrived there this season at different times.

The Titans didn’t have their playoff fate sealed until being mathematically eliminated a week ago Sunday following an overtime loss to visiting Arizona. The team’s encouraging 3-1 start fell to the wayside after losing eight of the next 10 games. 

The Texans were long eliminated from the postseason somewhere in the middle of the current 13-game losing streak. That followed opening the season 2-0, including beating the Titans 30-24 in overtime in Week 2 for their last victory.

On Sunday at LP Field, the Titans (6-9) and visiting Texans (2-13) renew their AFC South rivalry with nothing on the line, that is if you don’t consider job security for coaches and players alike and closing disappointing seasons on a winning note as legitimate reasons for which to play.

"Yeah, it does," Titans coach Mike Munchak said whether it matters finishing with one more win this season than last year’s 6-10 record. "I think if people want to go on that being the major thing, you won ‘X’ amount of games, so you definitely want to post a number that’s (higher).

"Even though it’s only one game better, hopefully the people that are watching us play are seeing us much and much better than last year, as far as what they’re seeing on the field."

That’s also what Munchak wants to show new Titans president and CEO Tommy Smith, the son-in-law of late owner Bud Adams who now leads the team’s family ownership group. Smith will eventually determine whether Munchak returns for a fourth season as head coach in 2014.

Last Sunday, the Titans helped make the case by rallying for a 20-16 win at Jacksonville that snapped a three-game losing streak. A win this Sunday against the Texans would end a five-game home losing skid, the longest since the franchise moved here from Houston in 1997.

"Since this one is not going to (decide) the playoffs, I think in general it’s always a positive," Munchak said of closing the season with a win. "It’s always better than the alternative. You don’t want to go out on a loss, if you can help it. 

"It’s good to finish with a good feeling about what you’re doing and how the season went to win two in a row at the end, two division teams and all that."

Conversely the Texans are trying to win three games and prevent matching their worst season since going 2-14 in 2005. After guiding Houston to AFC South titles the past two seasons and their only playoff appearances since joining the league as an expansion franchise in 2002, eighth-year coach Gary Kubiak was fired Dec. 6 and replaced in the interim by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the former Dallas and Buffalo head coach.

Like the Titans, there have been plenty of closes calls. Eight of Houston’s 13 losses have come by seven points or less, including four by three points or less. Conversely, the Titans have lost seven games by nine points or less, including three by three points or less and two in overtime.

All those close games speak to the competitiveness of the league, according to Phillips.

"Certainly it is," he said. "That’s the difference in a lot of playoff teams or a lot of teams playing for the playoffs. I mean, I’m sure Tennessee could say the same thing. They could be playing for the playoffs right now."

But they’re not, although there is marked improvement on both sides of the ball, even if their final record might not indicate it. Certainly, losing starting quarterback Jake Locker to injury for more than half the games didn’t help, but the offense has clicked in recent weeks, including rushing for 182 yards last week against the Jaguars.

In that game, the Titans finally found the balanced ground attack — lead back Chris Johnson had 90 yards on 22 carries; backup Shonn Greene had a season-high 91 yards on 19 attempts — they have been seeking all season, especially to alleviate pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

And the Titans have had plenty of standout playmakers on both sides of the ball. 

Offensively, wide receiver Kendall Wright (89 catches for 1,029 yards and two touchdowns) and tight end Delanie Walker (57-542-6) are having career years. Veteran wide receiver Nate Washington posted his third 100 yards-plus receiving game of the year against the Jaguars and needs 120 receiving yards Sunday to reach 1,000 yards or more in a season for a second time.

Defensively, Jurrell Casey’s 10-and-a-half sacks not only leads the team, but is tied for the AFC lead among defensive tackles and 11th overall in the NFL. Cornerback Alterraun Verner has a team-high five interceptions to rank tied for first in the AFC and fourth overall in the league, while strong safety Bernard Pollard has made his presence felt both as a team leader and on the field, where he leads the team with 134 tackles.

"I think we are a lot closer at the end of this season to being the organization that we want to be than we were last year," Washington said. "You can look at the progression. This is coach Munchak’s third year. There were a lot of new guys in this locker room, some second- and third-year guys, also. 

"So, the more we can continue to grow as an organization, I think it’s up to guys like me and the older guys in this locker room that maybe just have a couple years left to establish who we think that this organization is going to be. It is going to be up to us. It is going to be up to the coaching staff."

While the record might not indicate it, the Texans have played well in spots both as a team and individually. Led by All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt and his team-high nine-and-a-half sacks, the Houston defense ranks seventh in the NFL by allowing 318 yards per game, including being ranked third against the pass (197.5).

Offensively, though, the Texans have struggled at quarterback. After being the starting quarterback for seven seasons, Matt Schaub was benched after the sixth game and replaced by Case Keenum, the second-year quarterback out of the University of Houston. 

In eight starts, Keenum has completed 137-of-253 passes (54.1 percent) for 1,760 yards with nine touchdowns, six interceptions and a 78.2 rating. But he injured the thumb on his right throwing hand at the end of the Indianapolis loss a week ago Sunday and was replaced by Schaub in last week’s loss to Denver. Keenum’s status for Sunday is questionable, although he did practice Thursday and today.

"We’re going to wait and see how Case is," Phillips said. "It could be a situation where he wouldn’t be able to start, but he’d be the backup."

Either way, it appears Phillips is not headed for his third NFL head coaching stint with Houston. It has been widely reported that Penn State coach Bill O’Brien will interview for the position, possibly as early as next week.

Meanwhile, Munchak hopes the franchise in which he has been associated with since 1982 — as Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman, followed by offensive line coach and then head coach — won’t be in the same situation as Houston and looking for a new coach any time soon.

"We’re disappointed in the fact that the outcome of some of these games haven’t been better," said Munchak, who is 21-26 as Titans head coach. "I think we’ve been in all these games. I think we’ve been competitive.

"I think we’re better than we were last year at this time, but the bottom line is playoffs, championships, those things. We didn’t get that done, so it is disappointing."