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It’s only natural Texans coach Gary Kubiak is in personal turmoil weighing how much or even if he should play the starters in a statistically meaningless game against Tennessee on Sunday.
With the horrible injury luck the Texans have had, who could blame him?
After two consecutive losses, the AFC South champs can’t help or hinder their No.3 seed slot in the AFC playoffs no matter what happens Sunday. So conventional wisdom says rest your starters to ensure they are fresh for next week’s home playoff appearance.
But conventional wisdom doesn’t fly here. For all intents and purposes the Texans find themselves in a must-win situation and fighting for their playoff lives in the regular-season finale.
The Texans have put themselves in a virtual win-or-go home situation a week prior to the playoffs because of how the end of their season is shaping. Venturing into the playoffs for the first time on a three-game losing streak would all but set up-and-done playoff scenario in Reliant Stadium next week.
That’s not what you expect from a team that has overcome key injuries and still up and until two weeks ago was in the hunt for the AFC No.1 seed and home field throughout the playoffs.
So Kubiak has no choice but to play his starters and pull out every stop he can think of to come away with a must-have win against divisional rival Tennessee at Reliant Stadium.
“We understand the situation and what’s going on from a standpoint of going into the playoffs,” said Kubiak, whose team is 10-5. “We got to find a way to fix some of our problems, get ready to play another game this weekend and play better than we’ve been playing in the last two weeks.”
It’s not like there is any choice if the Texans have any hope of making a run in the playoffs.
“As a team you want to be feeling good going into postseason play,” said inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. “You want to end upbeat and with guys excited about what’s going on so this game is important because we can accomplish that in this last game.”
The Texans have to find something to feel good about going into the playoffs, because questions and doubts are a threat to invade their locker room should they lose three straight games to end the regular season.
More to the point, Kubiak has to find a way to restore some confidence to rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who has looked sharp at all in the losses to Jacksonville and Indianapolis. Yates needs the entire playbook reopened to him with the understanding that the organization has complete faith in him (fingers crossed behind their backs).
It should help that all signs are pointing to star receiver Andre Johnson being back in the lineup after missing the last three games with another hamstring injury.
The defense, which has been the catalyst for this otherwise remarkable season, also needs to be on the field because for two straight weeks the unit was on the field and couldn’t get off during fourth-quarter game-clinching drives. It probably wasn’t a coincidence those occurrences took place with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips away recovering from kidney and gallbladder surgery.
But Wade is set to return this week, perhaps not to the sideline but up in the press box, which should give the defense a boost and restore some confidence going into the postseason.
“You got to get the winning feel back,” said defensive end Antonio Smith. “The rest everybody thing, if I was a coach, which probably never happen, but if I was, the only guy I would probably rest is Andre Johnson. The rest of us are going to work because this game is more important than most people would ever know.
“You think that since it doesn’t hurt us or help us as far as the playoff run, it doesn’t matter. I think Cincinnati took that approach last year or was it the year before last? Year before last, when if they would’ve won, we could’ve got in the playoffs and that same team that they let beat them and get in the playoffs beat them in the first round of the playoffs, so that first game is important.”
The scenario Antonio painted could be more real than even he realizes. The 8-7 Titans will come into Reliant fighting for their playoff lives Sunday. Should they win and then receive a lot of help, the Titans could secure the final wildcard playoff spot and a return trip to Houston the following week.
So the fact Tennessee has so much to play for Sunday only further ups the ante and makes it even more of a must-win for the Texans.
“I think it will be good for us,” said tight end Owen Daniels. “It’s always a tough game against the Titans. It seems like there’s always something to play for even if in the past, one team or both of us aren’t in the playoffs.
“I think we have a lot to play for and show ourselves that we can get back to work, do what we should be doing and obviously they do too, so it’ll be fun.”