- WHERE: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
- WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET | Prime Video, NFL+
Not long ago, Thursday’s Dallas Cowboys-Tennessee Titans game figured to have critical playoff ramifications. Now it’s a game where one team can rest some players if it so chooses -- but it’s likely not the team you think.
The 7-8 Titans will host this game amid a freefall, losers of five straight and three of those games by double-digits. Sunday’s loss to the one-win, one-tie Houston Texans in Nashville, however, might have represented the low-water mark of the Titans’ recent skid.
And yet this game is semi-irrelevant to their playoff hopes.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel understands that his team’s chances of making the playoffs really come down to what happens in the Week 18 game at the Jacksonville Jaguars. The winner of that contest will win the AFC South and host a playoff game. In other words, the Titans could lose six straight by dropping Thursday’s game against Dallas and still get in.
The 11-4 Cowboys are already in the playoffs, having beaten the Eagles in a spirited, back-and-forth win Sunday. But they still technically have a lot to play for.
Dallas is guaranteed to be no worse than the NFC’s fifth seed, but the NFC East crown and No. 1 NFC seed remain up for grabs. The Cowboys can do their part by winning Thursday and in the finale at Washington and have the Eagles lose their final two at home to the Saints and Giants. It will be tough for Dallas to earn the NFC’s top seed, but there’s a path: winning the NFC East, plus having the Vikings and 49ers each drop at least one game over the next two weeks.
It’s not often when two teams in the playoff hunt meet this late in the season and the one with the (far) worse record has considerably less on the line than the better club does, but here we are.
Here are four things to watch for when the Titans host the Cowboys on Thursday on Prime Video:
- Will Mike Vrabel opt to rest some Titans players on Thursday? If there was a surprise this week, it was that the occasionally ornery Vrabel didn’t swat away questions about resting players in this fairly meaningless game. It appears that he’s considering the pros and cons of doing just that. “I think we’ll have to prepare this week and see where guys are on Wednesday and even Thursday before we ultimately make a decision and see who you feel like could have a setback or who could need some time,” Vrabel said. “Those we’ll have to look at.” Other than quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose ankle injury is expected to keep him out at least through the regular season, there are other critical Titans players who are expected to rest. They include running back Derrick Henry (hip); linebackers Denico Autry, Dylan Cole, Zach Cunningham and Bud Dupree; starting offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere; and defensive backs Kristian Fulton and Amani Hooker. The Titans will also be without defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (ankle), perhaps their best defender. Expect to see some unfamiliar faces for Tennessee in this one.
- Dallas has some injury issues, too. The Titans aren’t the only banged-up club. The Cowboys have a few notable injuries, including Tony Pollard, who is listed as questionable with a thigh injury but will not play. On Tuesday, Micah Parsons was a surprise addition to the injury list; he was limited in Tuesday’s practice with a hand injury and is also questionable to play. Defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence (foot) and Sam Williams (concussion) also appeared, but have no game statuses. LB Leighton Vander Esch (neck) has already been ruled out this week. There doesn’t seem to be too much concern about Parsons. It will be interesting to see whether Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy starts pulling key players if Dallas gets a sizable lead. The Cowboys do still have some personnel matters to work out, such as giving wide receiver T.Y. Hilton more action and figuring out their best cornerback options with the playoffs fast approaching.
- Malik Willis still can change the trajectory of his season. (Editor's note: Joshua Dobbs, not Willis, is expected to start at QB on Thursday against Dallas. This article was written before Thursday's news.) It has been a tough run for the third-round pick who has been tasked with coming off the bench for a few stretches this season with Tannehill out, and it’s looking as if Willis will need to start the next two games at the very least -- and possibly a playoff game, if the Titans make it. Willis had a few moments in the loss to the Texans, including his first NFL rushing touchdown, but he was sacked four times in the first half and picked off twice in the fourth quarter, including on the game-sealing play. He’s been thrown into some big moments, such as the start against Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. But perhaps Willis can play a cleaner game with this one being a lower-pressure affair. His accuracy has been spotty at best, but some of that can be blamed on a porous offensive line and inconsistent playmakers. These next two starts, especially this one versus Dallas’ strong pass rush, might give the Titans a better idea of where Willis is in his development and how he might factor in with the team in 2023.
- Can T.Y. Hilton be a playoff asset for the Cowboys? Some were surprised when the Cowboys pivoted away from signing Odell Beckham Jr. and toward signing Hilton, who had been unemployed since the Colts let him go this past offseason. Gearing up for action the past few weeks, Hilton made his season debut against the Eagles Sunday, playing 12 snaps and catching only one pass on one target. But boy, did it count. Hilton hauled in a 52-yard grab – which matched his longest reception since 2018 – on a third-and-30 play midway through the fourth quarter. That allowed the Cowboys to tie the game on CeeDee Lamb’s second TD of the game. It was clear the Cowboys could use another wideout, even with nice contributions from Noah Brown. Michael Gallup hasn’t returned to his 2019 and 2020 form, and Hilton remains one of the few deep-shot options on the roster. This is the perfect type of game, against a familiar opponent he’s had some big games against over the years, for the Cowboys to continue working Hilton into the offense more. They might need him more than some people realize when the postseason starts.