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VOL. 40 | NO. 53 | Friday, December 30, 2016

Texans-Titans: What to watch

By Terry McCormick

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The 2016 season isn’t going to end the way the Tennessee Titans wanted it to. Last week’s loss at Jacksonville, coupled with a field goal miss by Cincinnati’s Randy Bullock against Houston, extinguished the Titans’ playoff hopes on a Christmas Eve that went from good to bad to ugly – rather quickly.

The Titans lost their playoff hopes and quarterback Marcus Mariota to a broken fibula.

As the Titans wrap up their season at home against the Texans, who clinched their second consecutive AFC South crown on Saturday, the Titans will have to play for a consolation prize – beating the division champs and finishing with their first winning season since 2011.

Here’s what the Titans need to do to finish as winners:

Chase the Savage. The Titans’ pass rush, which struggled against Jacksonville, needs to return to put pressure on a largely untested Tom Savage, who has ascended to the Texans’ starting quarterback role after the benching of Brock Osweiler.

Savage has yet to throw his first career touchdown pass, and the Titans need to exploit his inexperience and not let that burn them the way Matt Barkley did in the second half against the Chicago Bears a few weeks back.

Reboot the running game. The Titans had just 58 yards rushing against a Jacksonville team that was determined to take DeMarco Murray away last week. The Titans need to get that going this week in the season finale, because they won’t have Mariota to operate the offense, and with backup Matt Cassel under center, the Titans need a strong running game to complement him.

Protect the Cassel. Cassel will get his first start of the season and isn’t nearly as mobile as Mariota. The Titans must give the veteran time to throw, and the receivers have to make plays for the veteran, who doesn’t have the same arm strength he used to or what the Titans are used to in Mariota.

Start winning in the division. The Titans’ wins this year against the Chiefs, Broncos, Lions, Dolphins and Packers were impressive. But losses inside the AFC South to the Jaguars, Texans and Colts (twice) are why the Titans are on the outside looking in this postseason.

A win in any one of those division games would have Tennessee in the playoff picture and controlling its own fate. Some of the division woes are a mindset, and a win over the Texans Sunday, even if it means nothing in the playoff picture, might mean something to the Titans’ state of mind going forward.

Matchups to watch

Taylor Lewan/Jack Conklin vs. Jadeveon Clowney/Whitney Mercilus. Even without J.J. Watt, the Texans still have a solid pass rush with Clowney, a former first overall pick, and Mercilus, who has blossomed into a danger pass rusher himself. Lewan and Conklin have played well this season and need to finish strong against the Texans’ duo.

Tom Savage vs. Dick LeBeau. LeBeau is the old master of blitzes and disguises on defense, and he should be able to concoct some schemes to confuse Savage and force the unseasoned quarterback to make a mistake or two in the course of Sunday’s game.

Valentino Blake vs. DeAndre Hopkins. By attrition in the secondary, Blake could draw this assignment Sunday. Jason McCourty has a shoulder injury and rookie LeShaun Sims is in the concussion protocol.

No matter who gets Hopkins on Sunday, the Titans have to help him out by getting pressure on the quarterback. That was something that didn’t happen often enough against Jacksonville last week, and the Titans paid the price as Allen Robinson had 147 yards receiving.

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