The Titans have everything to play for, as they are in a “win and in” setup in this spot, while the Texans have very little to play for (they could move from the 4 seed to the 3 seed with a win and an unlikely Chiefs loss — though the edge there is negligible compared to the value of resting up a player in Deshaun Watson who injured his ankle last week and needs to be healthy for the Texans to have a chance in the tournament). Unfortunately, the Texans have said they plan to play starters in this one and try to win — creating a risk/reward setup against the beatable defense of the Titans. For what it’s worth, Vegas isn’t buying, with the Titans installed as 3.5 point favorites on the road.
The Matchup ::
- Ryan Tannehill has played nine games as the Titans’ starter; in those nine games, he has topped 27 pass attempts only three times
- One of those games was the Titans’ Week 15 loss to the Texans, in which Tanny threw the ball 36 times — his second most pass attempts of the season
- Only six teams have run the ball at a higher rate than Tennessee
- Only six teams have faced a higher pass play rate than Houston
- Houston has allowed a stunning 13 pass catchers to go for at least 70 yards and a touchdown — with five going for 100+ and at least one touchdown
- A.J. Brown went 8-114-1 in this matchup in Week 15
- Houston is boosting aDOT by 5% and catch rate by 2%, but their biggest boost has come in the YAC department, where they are boosting the league-average YAC/r by nearly 14%
- A.J. Brown ranks second in the NFL in YAC/r, at 8.5
- Brown’s 13 targets against Houston were not only a season high, but they also marked the only time Brown has seen more than eight targets in a game; Brown has topped five targets only four times all year
- I would dive into the Houston side, but you know what’s going on here: Will Fuller is going to miss, which means you could pencil in DeAndre Hopkins for a deeper aDOT and a nearly rock-solid projection of double-digit targets if you wanted to believe that the Texans will actually play their starters for the entirety of a meaningless Week 17 game
- Because Bill O’Brien is the coach of the Texans (i.e., because Bill O’Brien is a bit of a dunce at times), it wouldn’t be a total shock if he holds true to his word here, if you want to build a few tourney rosters around this belief — though the edge gained would be minimal unless Hopkins/Watson put up monster games, as they are priced up for their name value and season-long production
The Game ::
With this game being played in the late slot on Sunday and Bill O’Brien holding his pocket threes close to the vest, the complexion of this game is nearly invisible at the moment — with even Deshaun Watson saying he has no idea if he is playing this week. Here’s what we know: if the Chiefs win early in the day against the Chargers (likely), the Texans cannot improve their seeding at all; while if the Chiefs somehow lose early in the day, the Texans can move from the four seed to the three seed with a win…which would actually put them at risk of having to play the Titans for the third time in four weeks should the Steelers also lose in the late slot against the Ravens (as the Texans would improve to the three seed, but the Titans would still land in the playoffs as the six seed and would stay in Houston to hit this same matchup in “Week 18” — barring an alternate scenario in which Oakland sneaks in instead). The interesting thing, however, is that you wouldn’t typically force your most important players to prepare for a Week 17 game and then let them know a half hour before kickoff, “Hey, the Chiefs are about to win, so we’re going to sit you” — which means that unless O’Brien is even more of a stranger to logic and clear-headed thought processes than we already know him to be, he’ll likely decide in advance of Sunday whether or not Watson // DeAndre Hopkins // etc. will play (and how much they will play), and there is a chance this information will leak out to the public. If none of that ends up being the case :: the Titans — as we are well aware by now — are best attacked through the air; and with Will Fuller set to miss this game regardless, Hopkins would see a larger target share and more downfield work if he were to play the entire game. It would also be smartest to assume that even if Watson and Hopkins start this game, they will not finish it, so both of these players should be considered “high-risk plays, with some outside potential for high reward.” (And honestly, this is how these plays are best viewed even if word comes out before Sunday that these guys are expected to be a full-go, as there will still be risk that this is simply the word being leaked to the public/Titans, and that neither guy will actually play this game in its entirety.) To put all that another way: the Texans will either be an offense of backups-mixed-with-starters against a strong Tennessee team fighting for their playoff lives (which would make anyone on the field little more than a dart throw), or they will be starters who will be at serious risk of not playing the entire game (which would also make anyone on the field little more than a dart throw).
The area that is actually impacted more heavily by all this is the Titans’ side of the ball, where Derrick Henry will be back this week against a Houston team that is facing the seventh highest opponent pass play rate in the league, but that is more “average” than “elite” against the run — allowing 4.4 yards per carry to running backs while ranking 13th in DVOA against the run. If Watson and Hopkins start this game and are “expected” to play for the entirety of this contest, the risk factor on Henry needs to be bumped up a small amount as well (while A.J. Brown will become more viable), while a situation in which the Texans’ stars appear more likely to be rested would open the door for Henry to bulldoze his team into the final spot in the playoffs (and would give us the best bracket of six teams we could hope for on this side of the NFL tourney).
Regardless of the way in which all these elements turn out, Henry should be considered an ultra-expensive yardage-and-touchdown back (a shame, given that Houston has also allowed the most receiving yards to running backs) — and while his status as such gives him fewer paths to a slate-breaking score (while keeping his floor lower than we would love), he would also qualify as one of the best bets for yards and touchdowns among backs with one-dimensional roles.
Behind Henry, the Titans are trying to limit passing volume — which leaves a pair of setups to chase if you are wanting to go to this side of the ball:
A) You could chase a similar setup to the one the Titans had the last time these teams played, in whichRyan Tannehill ended up throwing the ball 36 times (as laid out above) and volume is available on Tennessee pass catchers.
B) You could chase a setup in which the Titans limit pass attempts (as they prefer to do), in which case you would be betting on explosiveness over volume in the Tennessee passing attack.
Given the Titans’ preference for a run-leaning approach and the uncertainty on playing time on the Texans’ side of the ball, that second track is the one likelier to hit — though the players who will see a volume boost here if the first approach ends up landing in our laps are the same players who are the better “explosiveness” bets, with Brown and (to a lesser extent) Jonnu Smith the players on the Titans who are best equipped to score from anywhere on the field. If rostering these players, it’s best to assume only four to seven targets for Brown and four to five targets for Jonnu (requiring each to do a lot with a little) — with anything over that a bonus. If wanting to expand into that first scenario (volume piling up), you should also consider bringing back any Brown and/or Jonnu rosters with a Houston pass catching piece as well, as we would likely need to see Houston put up points in order for volume to pile up on the Titans’ pass catching pieces. (Behind these two, things get pretty thin. I made a couple Corey Davis bets last week in the hopes A.J. would get checked by Lattimore, and we saw Tajae Sharpe hit instead — but the Sharpe production was more tied to Lattimore trailing A.J. than to any big change in role. It’s just dart throws behind the main pieces on this offense this week.)
JM’s Interpretation ::
I honestly won’t be surprised if I end up with no pieces from this game, as I won’t be taking the plunge on Houston players myself, while Henry (as a player uninvolved in the pass game) needs to do so much just to post the sort of score we really should be targeting at his price, and Brown and Jonnu just have so little guaranteed volume (with Brown priced up like a double-digit lock). With that said: we’ve probably all benefitted by this point from taking some pieces from this offense over the last month and a half, and I certainly don’t mind the idea of chasing here for one more week. For me, the best way to chase would be with a game stack that assumes idiocy on O’Brien’s part and bets on at least one Houston piece and at least two Tennessee pieces in the hopes of this game turning into a competitive, fairly high-scoring affair.