The Houston Texans are pushing for their third AFC South crown in the past four seasons, and the journey continues in their Monday night matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
The Texans dropped their first meeting against the Titans in Week 2, 20-17, but things have changed since that point. The Texans are in the middle of a seven-game win streak that has them sitting alone atop the AFC South.
Enter the Titans, who are currently 5-5 and trying to close the gap, but the Texans can improve their chances for the playoffs if they can get the win on Monday might. Head coach Bill O'Brien knows wins seem to have a bigger impact late in the season.
"I think what happens is when you're winning, they all become more and more important," O'Brien explained. "I think that's what you want. You want it that way, and we have to focus hard on the details. Winning football in November-December means that you've earned the right to win during the week. You've earned the right to go out there and compete and win because you've prepared during the week and paid attention to the details and done everything that you're asking each other as teammates or as coaches and players to go out and do to be able to win a game. As you keep continuing to win, that becomes more and more critical."
The Texans drafted Deshaun Watson for this exact reason, to have a quarterback that was built for big games. Watson has been an instrumental player in the Texans' success this season and he understands that any playoff hopes start with focusing on the Titans.
"The next game is always the most important," Watson explained. "We just try to keep on stacking wins and put us in position for later on down the season. It's a very important game. It's a home game. We want to win those. It's a division game. We have to make sure we prepare well and get ready for it."
Watson enjoys the spotlight on him and his teammates and that is exactly what it will be on Monday Night Football. Those prime-time games produce a little more excitement for the Texans, and Watson is just fine with that.
"You're the only one on national TV, so you get the chance to kind of show what you've got and what you've been preparing for," Watson explained. "Every game is very important, but of course Monday nights, Sunday nights and Thursday nights have a little bit more juice."
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was limited to individual work in Wednesday's practice, with the stinger he suffered in Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"I'm feeling good. I was able to go through individual. I have to take it one day at a time, but I felt pretty good today," Mariota said. "It was a stinger, pretty much. Basically, it's one of those deals again with your nerve and the feeling down my right arm wasn't totally there. So, it was one of those deals where you have to wait and see for the nerve to calm down and things should be good."
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is hopeful that Mariota will be able to increase his workload as the week goes on.
"He was limited. He did a little bit, but didn't take the normal reps that he would take. We're hopeful that he'll progress as the week goes on," Vrabel said.
The good news for Mariota is that the injury is not related to the nerve injury he suffered in the season opener that caused him to miss the first meeting with the Texans. Mariota went through his work on Wednesday and did not have to use the half glove that he needed after suffering the first injury where he lost feeling in some of the fingers on his throwing hand.
The other good news for Mariota is that the Titans have an extra day to get ready.
"It definitely helps. We have an extra day to get healthy and to get our bodies right. We'll definitely take advantage of it," Mariota said.
Vrabel indicated that he is hopeful his quarterback would be able to go even if he does not take a full complement of reps this week in practice.
"At some point in time, there are guys that can play with limited practice reps throughout the week. Hopefully, Marcus could fall into that category of someone who probably wouldn't need every single rep. He doesn't take every single rep throughout the week anyways. We think that practice is important, but certainly there is a fine line when trying to get a guy back and practicing," Vrabel said.
The Titans did not have Mariota available when they beat Houston in the first meeting, thanks to a fake-punt touchdown pass and some trickery with the Wildcat formation using Derrick Henry.
But the Texans are a vastly different team from the one that visited Nissan Stadium in September. After starting 0-3, Houston has reeled off seven straight wins and holds a two-game edge in the AFC South.
"They're on a hot streak. I think that they're a confident football team. They're winning four games by three points or less. They're playing the situations well at the end of the game," Vrabel said. "In the most critical situations they're executing, whether that be a two-minute drill defensively, or getting a stop, or the four-minute offense running the clock out. They're doing those things well in the close games."
The Texans have a chance to set a franchise record with their eighth straight win on Monday.