When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS
As the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans dive back into a part of their schedules that are heavy on division games, there's a chance both teams are playing for the future more than the present. That's in large part due to the strength of the AFC.
The AFC South is the only division in its conference that doesn't have three teams with winning records. In fact, this is the first time in NFL history one conference has had 11 teams with winning records through 11 games.
The Texans (5-6) are currently second in the division and still have a shot, slim as it might be, to make the playoffs. At 2-9, the Titans are likely out. There's a lot yet to learn about both teams, though. Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.
Ganguli: So Paul, how has Zach Mettenberger progressed since his first start, which was also the last time the Texans saw him? And has he taken any more pregame selfies?
Kuharsky: No additional selfies, though coach Ken Whisenhunt said he wouldn’t put it past Mettenberger to take one this week in sarcastic fashion based on J.J. Watt's reaction last time around. He holds on to the ball too long too often and has been sacked five times in two different starts. They have not won any of his four starts, but he has made progress for sure. He hangs in and can deliver the ball and he threw for an Oilers/Titans rookie record 345 yards in the blowout loss to Philadelphia. The Titans threw a bunch because they were behind and because they couldn’t run. Still, it was a big total and he and the passing offense found some good chunk plays.
He has got some swagger, he takes the blame for stuff that’s not necessarily his fault and the team has rallied around him. Those are all good signs for a sixth-round guy starting just his fifth game.
So Ryan Fitzpatrick got displaced by Ryan Mallett, but Mallett got hurt in just his second game and is finished for the year. What do you expect from Fitzpatrick in his return to the lineup? Any outside chance we see Tom Savage?
Ganguli: O'Brien is going with Fitzpatrick as the starter and said he is leaning toward Savage as the backup. The Texans also signed quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to the roster, but with less than a week in Houston, it's unlikely he'd be ready to take over for Fitzpatrick if necessary during the game.
You've seen Fitzpatrick plenty as he was the Titans' starter for a lot of last year. The thing I've always noted about him is that 10 years into his career, he is who he is. His arm strength isn't great and the vast majority of his passes have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, suiting his skill set. He was effective from the left hash to the right sideline, where he has completed more than 75 percent of the passes thrown 10 yards or less. He has got moxie and isn't afraid to take off running -- his rushing yards (143) and rushes (36) rank ninth among quarterbacks. As you predicted he would when the Texans signed him, he throws too many interceptions (3.1 percent of the time, to be exact, ranking 26th in the league).
One major difference between the Fitzpatrick the Titans faced the first time and this one: He cut his giant bushy beard down to a mini-beard.
How will the Titans account for the loss of offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who has a high-ankle sprain? Is this good news for the Texans’ pass rush?
Kuharsky: It seems highly unlikely the Titans will have Lewan on Sunday, and obviously he’s a huge part of their chances to slow down Watt & Co. Lewan has been pretty good since taking over for Michael Roos, lost for the season with a knee injury, after five games. Byron Stingily has been the Titans' third tackle since Roos went down. Stingily’s seen regular action on offense as a tackle eligible. Still, as the left tackle in this game he’ll face quite a test. The Titans have to give him a tight end, or even a sixth lineman, on a regular basis to maximize Mettenberger’s chances to stay upright and have any success.
When he has been healthy enough to play, how has Jadeveon Clowney lived up this his billing?
Ganguli: Healthy enough to play and healthy enough to live up to his billing are two different things. It's unfortunate that the discussion about first overall picks always takes that tone. The fact is, Clowney is a talented player who will likely have a long and disruptive NFL career. Right now, though, he's dealing with the recovery from a meniscus tear he suffered in Week 1 of the season. Clowney played against the Titans last time these teams met, in his first game back since that surgery, and he said after the game he knew he wasn't right. Clowney missed the next game because his knee was still bothering him and he had the flu. He returned to playing shortly thereafter. He's playing through pain, but lately has experienced some swelling in his knee as well, so he could be out Sunday. It's been frustrating for him because his transcendent ability is very much dependent on his being able to move like he wants.
You seem to write often about how bad the Titans receivers are. What’s going on there?
Kuharsky: I was part of setting big expectations, I’m afraid. Both Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter were great through camp. I figured Wright would pick up on two good seasons at the start of his career and Whisenhunt would find ways to use Wright more effectively, sending him deep more often. Hunter was snatching stuff away from defensive backs when the games didn’t count. He has been a far bigger disappointment than Wright. As receivers from his 2013 draft class and this year’s group are on these steady inclines, he’s plotting a much more jagged course. He mistimes jumps, some of which don’t even seem necessary. Like Wright, he has too much trouble keeping his feet. Too often he looks like a great athlete who’s not much of a football player.
Top backs, including Arian Foster, have shredded the Titans this season. Is he healthy enough to have a chance to run wild on them again?
Ganguli: I think so, yes. He has been careful with the recovery from his latest injury -- a groin injury he suffered on Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles -- not wanting to rush back like he did in Week 4 after suffering a hamstring injury in Week 2. Foster is among the group of veteran players O'Brien trusts to know their bodies well enough to dictate their rehab processes.
When healthy, Foster has been great for the Texans. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in six games this season. The only times he didn't were when he was inactive, hampered by an injury or had to leave the game early.