The Houston Texans are trying to overcome mounting absences as they near another playoff appearance and a franchise milestone, while the Tennessee Titans have made a coordinator change while attempting to keep their slim postseason hopes alive.
The Texans can clinch their second straight playoff berth with a win or tie Sunday when they visit Tennessee, where they've won two of the last three meetings.
A win would also give Houston (10-1) 11 victories for the first time in franchise history. As good as the Texans have been - winning five straight to maintain the AFC's best record - injuries continue to add up and the squad has needed overtime to scrape by mediocre teams each of the last two weeks.
Houston's sixth-ranked defense, which allows 319.7 yards per game, has seen its linebacking corps in particular come under siege. Brooks Reed will miss time with a groin injury suffered in the team's 34-31 win in Detroit on Thanksgiving, and Bradie James is also out with a hamstring injury.
All-Pro linebacker Brian Cushing was already lost for the season to a knee injury Oct. 8. The 458 yards allowed to Jacksonville two weeks ago and the 525 given up to the Lions are the two highest totals yielded by Houston this season.
"I'm concerned about the health of our team right now," said coach Gary Kubiak, who will also be without cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring). "But that's part of this business this time of year, so we've got to figure out a way to be as good as we can be on Sunday. It's something we've got to deal with."
Defensive end J.J. Watt should continue to help. He had three sacks on Thanksgiving, boosting his AFC-best total to 14 1/2.
The injuries create opportunities for first-round pick Whitney Mercilus and Bryan Braman, who have primarily played on special teams. Mercilus led the FBS in sacks last season with 16 for Illinois and has recorded three over his last five games. Connor Barwin will take over Reed's strong-side position while Mercilus will replace Barwin on the weak side.
"I'm definitely ready for it," Mercilus said. "I've been coached up and all that. It's what I've been preparing for, what I've been training for, and the time has come now for me to step up and show the coaches that I've taken all the coaching and I'm ready to play."
The Titans (4-7) had an opportunity last week after their bye to put themselves within one game of the AFC's final playoff spot. Instead they became the first visiting team to lose in Jacksonville this season, falling 24-19.
Now Tennessee is a long shot for its first postseason berth since 2008, especially with road games against Indianapolis and Green Bay still remaining.
Owner Bud Adams put all personnel on notice following Tennessee's 51-20 home loss to Chicago on Nov. 4, and it didn't take long after the defeat to Jacksonville for the first domino to fall. Coach Mike Munchak fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on Monday, replacing him with 32-year-old quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, who has been with the Titans since 2006.
The Titans' 327.7 yards per game rank 24th and their 17.5 first downs are 29th. They settled for five field-goal attempts against the Jaguars.
Jake Locker is 32 of 61 for 383 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in two games since returning from a shoulder injury he initially suffered early in a 38-14 loss at Houston on Sept. 30.
"As an offense I didn't feel like we were progressing the way that I had hoped," Munchak said. "I believe we needed a change in direction and I hope to see that progress in our remaining games. Dowell has worked here for a number of years under some very successful coordinators and he is ready for the challenge."
A bigger challenge for Tennessee could be slowing down Houston's running game. The Texans' 144.1 yards per game on the ground rank fifth, while the Titans' defense is 27th against the run (129.8).
Houston's Arian Foster leads the league with 12 rushing touchdowns and is second with 1,064 yards, and Ben Tate could be back in the mix Sunday after missing four straight games with a hamstring injury.
Andre Johnson posted the best two-game total of receiving yards in NFL history with 461 in the last two contests, and he could be in for another big day against a Titans defense that gave up eight passing plays of more than 20 yards to the Jaguars.
Tennessee's Chris Johnson has averaged 122.0 rushing yards in his last six games dating back to Oct. 11, the second-most in the NFL during that span. He recorded 141 yards on 25 carries against Houston on Sept. 30, but was held to 18 yards on 10 attempts in a 41-7 home loss to the Texans last season.
Foster totaled 234 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in that game.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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