NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The Tennessee Titans have absolutely nothing on the line Thursday night except pride and the chance to build some momentum by snapping a five-game skid.
Getting as healthy as possible for their regular-season finale in Jacksonville (7-8) with the AFC South title on the line matters much more.
The Titans (7-8) are fighting for their fourth straight playoff berth because of the franchise’s longest skid since 2015 after a 19-14 loss to the NFL’s worst team in Houston. Now they face a quick turnaround hosting Dallas (11-4) with the Cowboys needing to win out to win the NFC East.
As much as coach Mike Vrabel might want to rest every starter and treat this as an exhibition, he also has the NFL’s most banged-up team having used a league-high 82 players. That comes a year after setting the league record with 91 players in a non-strike season.
His message Monday was simple and short: ”Say less and do more.” Vrabel also calls this a great opportunity for players taking advantage of the chance to play.
”We’ll just keep having to find guys that want to do that,” Vrabel said.
The defense. Yes, as banged up as this unit is and despite giving up 10 points in the fourth quarter of their loss to Houston, the Titans held their 10th opponent to 20 points or less. Twice, they held Houston to field goals after getting inside the Titans 10.
But the banged-up secondary has allowed opponents to throw at will against Tennessee, and the Titans gave up three of their four biggest plays in the fourth quarter on pass plays, including a 37-yarder that set up the winning touchdown.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offense. Malik Willis scored his first NFL touchdown on a 14-yard run with an assist from offensive lineman Jordan Roos. But the rookie quarterback had as many throws (23) as Derrick Henry had rushing attempts. Henry ran for 126 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry with a 48-yard touchdown run.
Willis was sacked four times by halftime behind the patchwork offensive line. He finished 14 of 23 for 99 yards passing with both interceptions in the fourth quarter, the last on the final play in the end zone with Treylon Burks manhandled with no flag.
The Titans got Burks back from a concussion that cost him two games. Willis threw to him late in the first quarter for a 20-yard completion wiped out by a hold on rookie right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere. Burks was targeted officially three times with no catches, though he did have one carry for 15 yards.
Veteran wide receiver Robert Woods. He caught all four passes thrown to him for a team-high 30 yards, and he leads the Titans with 44 receptions for 448 yards. His best asset? He’s been available every game despite the left ACL tear that ended his 2021 season.
Derrick Henry. Yes, he’s the NFL’s second-leading rusher has 1,429 yards and 13 TDs, but he also has five fumbles in the Titans’ five-game skid. The three-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL rushing leader came into this season with a combined 11 fumbles over his previous six seasons.
”That’s three games in a row I’ve fumbled the ball and no excuse,” Henry said. ”I need to be better.”
The Titans may need to reach the playoffs just to have a chance for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to return from an injured right ankle. They put two starting offensive linemen on injured reserve last week after losing their three-time Pro Bowl left tackle in September.
They have 18 currently on injured reserve with one spot left to bring a player back this season. LB Zach Cunningham, activated off injured reserve Friday, couldn’t finish the loss to Houston with another injury to his elbow. Titans OLB Bud Dupree also hurt his chest and was limited to 28 snaps.
Petit-Frere, who came in with an injured ankle, was replaced by Le’Raven Clark in the second half. That left the Titans with only left guard Aaron Brewer from opening week as the only starting offensive lineman still available.
6 – This franchise currently has a six-year streak of winning records at stake. The Titans also haven’t lost six straight games since the skid that cost coach Ken Whisenhunt his job after a 1-6 start to his second season in 2015.
Heal up as much as possible for Week 18 in a game whose date and kickoff has yet to be set. Having a division title on the line could push the game against Jacksonville to the NFL’s final game of the regular season on Jan. 8.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
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