The Tennessee Titans might not get the respect they deserve, but they have a great opportunity to cement their standing among AFC contenders this weekend.
With a win over Houston, Tennessee will secure the conference's top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Such a result would mark the first time Tennessee clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC since 2008, and only the third time the Titans secured the top seed since the NFL began seeding teams for home-field advantage in playoff games in 1975.
Safety Kevin Byard earned his second Pro Bowl selection this season and is fully aware of how important Sunday can be for Tennessee.
"We're very excited. Obviously, we know what's at stake," Byard said during an appearance on Good Morning Football. "We know the one seed is at stake. Obviously, we already clinched the division, we clinched the playoffs.
"Sometimes going into this last game of the year, guys (will) kind of look over a team like Houston. But obviously they beat us up pretty bad last time we played them; we turned the ball over four times and didn't get any turnovers. So I think the motivation is obviously a little bit revenge on our division opponent, who we pretty much see at the end of the season every year for the past three years. Every year's gotten bigger.
"The first time, it was to clinch a playoff spot. Last year, it was to clinch the division. But this year, we're trying to clinch this one seed. So a lot of motivation coming into this game."
Such an achievement would be significant beyond home-field advantage. The Titans have been forced to fight their way through the second half of the 2021 season without their best player, running back Derrick Henry, who hasn't played since Week 8 due to injury.
Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill has struggled without Henry, posting a passer rating of 80.5 and a 10-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio with the running back off the field. The absences of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones didn't help Tannehill either, of course, but it begins with Henry's absence. Defenses enjoyed a higher pressure rate with Henry off the field, getting within a yard of Tannehill on 35.9% of pass rushes as opposed to just 23.7% when Henry was out there.
Henry returned to practice this week, increasing his chances of again becoming a key part of Tennessee's offense in the postseason. A win Sunday would buy Henry an additional week to get right before the Titans take the field, thanks to the bye that comes with being the conference's No. 1 seed.
The Titans likely don't need much more motivation to play to their full capabilities in Week 18, even if it comes against the lowly Texans, winners of just four games this season. Houston is no pushover, a lesson the Chargers learned in a double-digit loss to the Texans in Houston in Week 16. Tennessee will again hope to lean on its underrated defense to force turnovers and put Tannehill and Co. in advantageous situations to build a lead on the road, increasing their chances of victory.
The Texans will bring their best to the fight with the Titans on Sunday, hoping to play spoiler for a division rival that has surprised the NFL by reaching this point despite losses that would undercut the ambitions of most teams. Mike Vrabel's bunch has instead weathered the storm and needs only to safely find its way to port this weekend.