Round 1 of Tex­ans-Ti­tans’ AFC South show­down

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - AP Pro Foot­ball Writer

By Teresa M. Walker

The Hous­ton Tex­ans have won the AFC South three times in coach Bill O’Brien’s five sea­sons, and they have led or shared the di­vi­sional lead all but three weeks this sea­son.

Adding a fourth ti­tle to that list means go­ing through the fran­chise the Tex­ans re­placed in Hous­ton.

The Ten­nessee Ti­tans last won the AFC South in 2008 and haven’t swept the Hous­ton Tex­ans since 2007. But the Ti­tans and sec­ond-year coach Mike Vra­bel, who got his NFL coach­ing start in Hous­ton work­ing with lineback­ers for O’Brien in 2014, has won four straight and six of seven since quar­ter­back Mar­cus Mariota was benched for Ryan Tan­nehill.

That com­bi­na­tion helped the Ti­tans (8-5) climb from the bot­tom of the AFC South mid­way through the sea­son into a tie with the Tex­ans (8-5). Ten­nessee hosts Hous­ton on Sun­day in the first of two games be­tween the ri­vals in the fi­nal three weeks of the sched­ule.

“The chal­lenge is get­ting ready for them the first time,” Ti­tans coach Mike Vra­bel said. “The sec­ond one is not go­ing to mean a whole lot. We’ve got to get ready for the first one here.”

Hous­ton holds the No. 4 seed in the AFC thanks to a bet­ter record against con­fer­ence teams than Ten­nessee.

A sweep of­fers the Ti­tans the safest bet to the di­vi­sion ti­tle and the fran­chise’s first home play­off game since Jan­uary 2009.

With Tan­nehill at quar­ter­back, Ten­nessee is scor­ing 31.4 points a game — sec­ond in the NFL in that time only to Bal­ti­more.

Week 15 started Thurs­day night with Bal­ti­more’s 42-21 home vic­tory over the New York Jets.

La­mar Jack­son threw five touch­down passes, scur­ried into the NFL record book and guided the Ravens to their sec­ond straight AFC North ti­tle and 10th con­sec­u­tive vic­tory. Bal­ti­more (122) took con­trol with touchdowns on its first three pos­ses­sions and Jack­son made it 28-7 in the third quar­ter with a 24-yard scor­ing pass to rookie Mar­quise Brown fol­low­ing a turnover by New York (5-9).

Jack­son ran for 86 yards (on eight car­ries) to break Michael Vick’s sin­gle-sea­son record for a quar­ter­back. Jack­son has 1,108 yards rush­ing. Vick had 1,039 for At­lanta in 2006. Jack­son com­pleted 15 of 23 passes for 212 yards and in­creased his NFL-lead­ing to­tal of touch­down passes to 33, ty­ing the fran­chise sea­son record set by Vinny Tes­taverde in 1996.

BUF­FALO (9-4) at PITTS­BURGH (8-5)

These teams cur­rently hold the wild-card spots in the AFC, which helped this game move to prime time. Buf­falo can clinch a play­off berth with a vic­tory, while the Steel­ers are try­ing to stay ahead of the Ti­tans. The Bills are 5-1 away from Buf­falo this sea­son, though it might be tougher for Bills Mafia to find their way into Heinz Field.

A big chunk of the rea­son the Steel­ers are in the play­off chase is how good they are at home, go­ing 5-2. Pitts­burgh also has won the last six in this se­ries.

QB Devlin Hodges can make a bit of his­tory by be­com­ing the first un­drafted rookie in the com­mon draft era (since 1967) to win his first four starts.

NEW ENG­LAND (10-3) at CINCIN­NATI (1-12)

The Pa­tri­ots’ two-game skid has de­layed New Eng­land’s an­nual clinch­ing of its per­func­tory play­off berth. Now the Pats go into Cincin­nati as heavy fa­vorites to both snap that rare los­ing string and se­cure that play­off berth with a vic­tory.

Tom Brady needs three touch­down passes to tie Pey­ton Manning (539) for most in NFL his­tory, which will be watched much more closely than any­thing hap­pen­ing on the Ben­gals’ side­line. We think.

CHICAGO (7-6) GREEN BAY (10-3)

The Bears need a fourth straight win to keep their play­off hopes alive in the NFC, where the only teams with­out dou­ble-digit vic­to­ries as­sured of reach­ing the post­sea­son play in the NFC East.

But this time, Chicago is play­ing Green Bay, which can clinch an NFC play­off berth with a vic­tory or a tie and a loss by the Rams. Aaron Rodgers has thrown 17 TD passes with only one in­ter­cep­tion in his past five games at home against Chicago. at

SEATTLE (10-3) at CAROLINA (5-8)

The Sea­hawks can bounce back from their loss to the Rams and pos­si­bly clinch a play­off berth with three dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios. They also need a vic­tory to keep a game back of San Fran­cisco in the NFC West if the Nin­ers win.

Cam Newton’s re­cov­er­ing from foot surgery, and the Pan­thers have lost five straight. Chris­tian McCaf­frey has been very suc­cess­ful against the NFC West — not to men­tion the en­tire league — av­er­ag­ing 197.3 yards from scrimmage in his last four games against that di­vi­sion.

DEN­VER (5-8) at KANSAS CITY (9-4)

The Chiefs al­ready have clinched their fourth straight AFC West ti­tle, and the big­gest ques­tion for Kansas City is the health of Pa­trick Ma­homes ‘ right hand. Kansas City has won eight straight in this se­ries be­tween the di­vi­sion ri­vals.

Rookie Drew Lock won’t catch the Chiefs by sur­prise af­ter he threw for 309 yards and three TDs last week in Den­ver’s rout of Hous­ton.

TAMPA BAY (6-7) at DETROIT (3-9-1-)

The Buc­ca­neers are try­ing to fin­ish the sea­son strong in coach Bruce Ari­ans’ first year, and Jameis Win­ston is try­ing to prove he de­serves a con­tract from some­one this off­sea­son. Not even a frac­ture in the thumb of his right, throw­ing hand is keep­ing Win­ston

out of the lineup af­ter he threw for a ca­reer-high 456 yards and four TDs last week.

Detroit rookie quar­ter­back David Blough has to con­tend with Shaquil Bar­rett, the NFL’s sacks leader with 15 this sea­son. The Lions are try­ing to snap a sixgame skid.

MI­AMI (3-10) at N.Y. GIANTS (2-11)

The Dol­phins have to re­turn to the same sta­dium where a rare pass in­ter­fer­ence penalty was called dur­ing re­view and helped cost them a one-point loss to the Jets last week.

This is a prime op­por­tu­nity for the Giants to end a nine-game los­ing streak af­ter fall­ing in over­time to Philadel­phia on Mon­day night. An­other loss would mark the first 10-game skid in fran­chise his­tory.

PHILADEL­PHIA (6-7) at WASHINGTON (3-10)

The Ea­gles have a short week and need blin­ders to fo­cus only on the Red­skins and not next week’s home game against Dal­las, which could de­cide the strug­gling NFC East. Philadel­phia es­caped against Washington 32-27 in Septem­ber and can look at the Red­skins’ close loss at Lam­beau Field to Green Bay last week as a re­minder to stick to the task at hand.

This will be Washington rookie quar­ter­back Dwayne Hask­ins’ first ca­reer start against an NFC East op­po­nent, and the Ea­gles have won the last five in this se­ries.

DAVID J. PHILLIP - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Hous­ton Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son, left, is swarmed by Den­ver Bron­cos de­fend­ers dur­ing the first half of an NFL foot­ball game Sun­day, Dec. 8, 2019, in Hous­ton.

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