Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5)
The Titans lost last week at home to the Saints, but because it was a non-conference game and division and conference records are tiebreakers for playoff qualification, that was a completely meaningless game for them in the standings. As a result, they rested running back Derrick Henry and defensive end Jeffrey Simmons to get them closer to 100% for this much more meaningful week 17 divisional game against the Texans. The Saints are also one of the top teams in the league, so there’s no shame in losing that game, especially since it was close for most of the game before the Saints pulled away at the end.
That was just the Titans’ 3rd loss in 9 games since switching to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, after losing 4 times in 6 games started by Marcus Mariota. The previous two losses could have gone either way, with the Titans losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 makeable field goals and had a couple fluke giveaways (+3.95% first down rate differential) and losing by 3 to the Texans in a game in which they had a field goal blocked and allowed a long interception return (-0.97% first down rate differential). Some of the Titans’ wins have been close, but they’ve undoubtedly been a better team since switching quarterbacks. Through the first 6 games of the season, they ranked just 12th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.76%. Over the past 9 games, they have ranked 7th at +3.21%.
Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed at +38.31%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 41.52% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018.
The Titans’ offense might not be quite that good going forward, as it’s unlikely Tannehill has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but they have plenty of talent around the quarterback, especially with feature back Derrick Henry back in the lineup this week, so this is one of the better offenses in the NFL. Their defense is still missing key players like cornerback Adoree Jackson, cornerback Malcolm Butler, and edge rusher Cameron Wake, but I still have the Titans’ 8th overall in my roster rankings.
The Titans have a rematch this week with the Texans, who narrowly defeated them a couple weeks ago, but the Texans have been pretty underwhelming overall this season, entering this game just 17th in the NFL in first down rate differential. They’re 10-5 on the season and have the AFC South locked up, but 8 of their 10 wins have come by a touchdown or less and they’ve undoubtedly been a worse team than the Titans since the Titans changed quarterbacks, especially with stud defensive end JJ Watt out with injury.
One thing complicating this pick is the uncertainty over whether or not the Texans will play their starters. The line, favoring the Titans by 5 points on the road, suggests the Texans will rest starters, even though Bill O’Brien has shot that idea down during the week. I would expect the Texans to at least rest starters like quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and cornerback Bradley Roby, who have been limited in practice this week with injury, assuming the Texans are locked into the 4th seed when this game begins, but that’s dependant on the Chiefs winning earlier in the day and locking up the 3rd seed. The Chiefs are favored by 9 points at home over the Chargers, but the Chiefs winning isn’t a lock and the Texans could play this like a real game if they’re still alive for the 3rd seed at gametime.
Seeding isn’t a huge deal in the first round, but in the second round I imagine the Texans would rather face the Patriots, who they’ve already beaten, than the Ravens, who absolutely destroyed them earlier this season, and if both the Texans and Chiefs advance to the AFC Championship, the Texans would obviously want to have homefield advantage in that matchup. If the Chiefs win as expected this week, I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have too much trouble with the Texans’ backups and we’re getting line value with the Titans as 5-point favorites if the Texans are somewhere around the 22nd best team in the league or worse with key players missing, which would almost definitely be the case, but I’m going to hold off on placing any sort of bet on this game until the Chiefs’ game is decided.
Update: The Texans are resting starters in this game locked into the 4th seed, but the line has skyrocketed to -10, so I can’t take the Titans with any confidence.
Tennessee Titans 27 Houston Texans 16
Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10