By Special Contributor John Glennon
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In the Titans' perfect world, they would be playing for the AFC South title at Nissan Stadium on Sunday, battling Houston with a chance to capture the division title for the first time since 2008.
The Titans' loss to Jacksonville last Sunday spoiled the big plans, but that doesn't mean the finale against Houston is totally without significance.
Here are five key questions for the Titans as they seek to finish 2016 on a winning note:
How can Sunday's games impact Titans' draft position? – Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Titans sit in the the fifth and 16th spots in the first round – the first pick courtesy of last year's trade with Los Angeles and the second pick Tennessee's own. A Rams loss to Arizona this weekend, combined with wins by Chicago and Jacksonville, could move the Titans to as high as the third overall pick of the draft. On the other hand, a Rams win, combined with losses by the New York Jets and San Diego, could leave the Titans as low as seventh overall.
As for the Titans' second pick in the first round, a Tennessee loss on Sunday could put the Titans as high as No. 12 overall – once the tiebreakers are figured out. On the other hand, a Titans' victory over Houston could drop Tennessee as low as No. 21 overall.
But don't expect the Titans to tank for a better pick. Players, coaches and executives are all paid – and wired – to win every game possible.
Is there really a difference between 8-8 and 9-7? – Whether they win or lose against the Texans, the Titans have already been eliminated from the postseason. But for a team that's already taken several strides in the right direction this season, posting a winning record – which would be the Titans' first since 2011 – would be yet another big sign of improvement. In addition, a win over Houston on Sunday would allow the Titans to finish 5-3 at home, which would be Tennessee's first winning mark at Nissan Stadium since 2011.
“I think it's very significant,” Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of finishing 9-7. “I think it's important because one, you have a winning year, but beyond that, I think we could match the record of the team that won our division. I think that's significant. I think it's important that we not be (.500), but that we win.”
Could a “meaningless” game still be a confidence builder? – In a word, yes. The Titans have had all kinds of difficulty in the AFC South over the last five years, as they've posted a 6-23 record against division opponents during that stretch. Houston has beaten the Titans in eight of the teams' last nine meetings, including the last five in a row (and four of those have been by at least 14 points). So a Titans win – even though there are no postseason implications – would still help the team feel better about itself going into next season, especially in regards to division play.
“It would be big because we haven't beaten them in a few years,” Titans linebacker Avery Williamson said. “That would be really good for us. It would be something to build on, starting the new year with a win and a division win.”
What are some individual milestones that can be reached? – The Titans will be looking to win first and foremost, but would love to see some players hit individual milestones against Houston. Offensively, for instance, running back DeMarco Murray (1,266 rushing yards) is just two yards behind Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell in the race for the AFC's leading rusher. In addition, tight end Delanie Walker (seven touchdown catches) needs one more TD reception to tie the franchise record for tight ends in that category.
Defensively, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (10.5 sacks) needs one sack to set a career high. Outside linebacker Derrick Morgan (nine sacks) needs one sack to reach double digits in that category for the first time in his career.
“We've got to get him that sack,” LeBeau said of Morgan. “As good a player as he is, and the way he leads and the way he's worked, I'd love to see him get that double-digit sack. That's just one human being to another human being. I hope he gets it.”
Will the Titans' secondary offer some hope for next season? – The biggest disappointment for the Titans this season has been the team's inability to defend opposing passers with any kind of consistency. The Titans were ranked ninth against the pass after five games this season, but have plummeted to 31st since then. During that time, the Titans cut cornerback Perrish Cox and reduced the playing time of former starter Jason McCouty. Still, they've given up over 300 yards passing to the likes of Trevor Siemian, Matt Barkley and Blake Bortles in the past month. Will the current cast of characters – which includes Brice McCain, Valentino Blake, and rookies LeShaun Sims and Kalan Reed – show some promising signs against a Houston passing attack led by quarterback Tom Savage?