NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The last time the Tennessee Titans were in a prime-time game was Week 11. They were sitting at 7-3 after defeating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers and were being projected as an early lock to win the AFC South division title.
A lot has changed since then, but their number of wins hasn’t.
After a five-game losing streak, the Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are tied atop of the division with 7-8 records heading into Week 17.
The Titans, a team that has gone through 82 players this season and with plenty more nursing injuries, now face a tough decision ahead of Thursday’s game (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) on a short week against the Dallas Cowboys (11-4) at Nissan Stadium.
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Titans coach Mike Vrabel has to decide if he’s going to rest players for next week’s winner-take-all game against a surging Jaguars team that has won three in a row, and some players have already been ruled out.
The AFC South title will be on the line in Week 18 regardless of what the Jaguars and Titans do this week, which would guarantee a spot in the playoffs for the winner while the loser will most likely find itself on the outside looking in.
But in the midst of a five-game losing streak, the Titans are desperately in need of a win.
“We’ve got to put a team together, go out there and win,” Vrabel said. “Try to figure out what’s best for the team and the player. Who you have, what you can do, and run. Then get them as healthy as you can, go play hard, and do the things that we know to win.”
Vrabel said they’ll go through a case-by-case basis to see how players feel to determine who can realistically play on a short week. During practice this week, the Titans’ pace looked more like a game-day walk-through because of how many “walking wounded” players they have.
Figuring out who needs extra time to be ready for the season finale versus putting the most competitive team on the field Thursday is a complicated determination, and three of the more arduous cases involve defensive starters.
Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, safety Amani Hooker, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham are among four defensive starters that won’t play this week. Hooker missed the last two games because of a knee injury, Dupree suffered a pectoral injury last week after missing seven games earlier this season with a hip injury and Dupree has been out with an elbow injury since Week 10.
And while Simmons has missed only one game (in Week 10), he has been nursing a sore right ankle for weeks — which has caused him to miss at least one practice per week over the last month.
Simmons has logged 749 snaps (82.7%) this season, which is almost 300 more than the next-closest defensive lineman (Denico Autry, 460). His 7.5 sacks are second only to Autry’s eight on the year, and his nine tackles for loss tie DeMarcus Walker for the team lead.
The fourth-year veteran is a prime example of a player the Titans felt they had to rest this week.
“If resting me this week helps get me ready for a game we’ve got to win to get in the playoffs, I’m all for it,” Simmons said. “But you know I want to go on that field. Whatever it takes though for us to get where we want to be which is the big dance. For us to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to beat Jacksonville for sure.”
Cornerback Kristian Fulton is listed as doubtful, as is Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry. Fulton has dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season and recently missed three games because of an injured groin, and Henry had a hip issue arise recently.
Henry missed Monday’s walk-through and was limited in practice Tuesday. Henry has rushed an NFL-high 319 times this season and is second among running backs in rushing yards (1,429) and touchdowns (13).
With the carries piling up for Henry, and the fact he’s dealing with the injury, he is another candidate for rest this week. Henry said he’s “willing to do whatever Coach Vrabel asks” him to when asked about his status for Thursday.
Tennessee starting right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere‘s ankle injury also warranted him getting rest this week. Petit-Frere is the only new offensive starter that was ruled out.
The struggling Titans offense is already without quarterback Ryan Tannehill after he had a procedure on his right ankle last week — which likely means he’s done for the season and into the playoffs even though the Titans are holding out hope that he can return.
Even with Tannehill in the lineup, the Titans have scored over 20 only once (a 36-22 loss to Jaguars) over their five-game losing streak. Tennessee’s offense came up short last week with rookie Malik Willis under center in a 17-14 loss to the Houston Texans, who have the league’s worst record at 2-12-1.
Veteran receiver Robert Woods wants to use Thursday’s game as a chance to get back on the right track though, regardless of its playoff implications.
“Some say this game doesn’t matter, but it’s an opportunity to get that rhythm back and let it carry over into Jacksonville,” Woods said. “You want to have a good week before with crisp offense, crisp drives. Then you want to pick up where you left off with a good rhythm right away by scoring on the first drive — which is what we were doing earlier this season.”
Whatever decision Vrabel makes regarding resting players against Dallas will be well thought out, but being as healthy as they can be for next week when the Titans can clinch their third consecutive division title (for the first time in franchise history) would seem like the bigger priority.