All-risk, no-reward stands as the objective predicament the Tennessee Titans face for Thursday’s date with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Titans (7-8) can improve their record but risk injury while gaining no ground in playoff positioning until the Jan. 8 winner-take-all AFC South showdown with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Even if the Jaguars beat the Houston Texans to improve to 8-8, should Tennessee lose Thursday, the division title would still on the line when the teams meet head-to-head.
“We’re at where we’re at,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of the dichotomy of pushing to solve a five-game losing streak even with the option to rest players Thursday. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the most important thing, what’s best for the team, what’s best for the player.”
Lagging confidence brought by a winless December — Tennessee’s last victory was Nov. 17 at Green Bay — and injuries to key personnel including quarterback Ryan Tannehill (ankle) might be enough to convince Vrabel to use select starters in a cameo on a short week.
“Whatever I’ve got to do,” Titans running back Derrick Henry said on Tuesday after practicing in a limited capacity because of a hip injury. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll be ready to do.”
After listing nearly 40 percent of the active roster on the injury report last week, Vrabel finds himself in tight quarters in his own locker room thanks to comments regarding the commitment of players outside of their supervised work schedule at team headquarters. Given that backdrop, pulling back on preparation at this juncture of the season could be a catch-22, but Vrabel said the team’s best interest is the only variable right now.
“I have a lot of respect for most of these guys that have been here. My job is to listen, find out what each and every player, coach is thinking and make a decision in the best interest of the football team,” Vrabel said.
In addition to Henry, the other positive injury news for Tennessee on Tuesday was the health of the secondary. Cornerback Kristian Fulton was a limited practice participant after missing three consecutive games with a groin injury. Safety Amani Hooker (knee) practiced for the first time in three weeks but was also limited.
Vrabel said Tannehill is “disappointed he can’t help us right now” but praised the team’s leaders for their approach to Week 17. The Titans are preparing rookie Malik Willis to start in the face of profound struggles pushing the ball down the field. Willis is 31 of 61 for 276 yards with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and has been sacked 10 times.
Dallas (11-4) is the top wild-card team in the NFC and maintains the slimmest hope of catching the Philadelphia Eagles in the East division.
“Honestly, I don’t ever really care what they’re doing on the other side,” Prescott said. “It’s about us just building momentum and gaining confidence with each game, and moving forward as we play these last two (games) out and move over into the postseason.”
Even if the Titans opt to roll out their “A” team, recent trends are not on their side. The Titans are averaging 15.2 points per game since scoring a season-high 27 points to beat the Packers. In the same timeframe, the Cowboys scored 223 points (Tennessee has 269 for the season), an average of 37.2 over a six-game stretch.
The Cowboys are still trending upward after a 40-34 comeback win over the Eagles last week, their fifth victory in six games. While the pass rush has slowed with one quarterback sack in the past three games, the body of work is daunting: 49 sacks and a plus-12 turnover margin. The Titans are minus-3.
And Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy isn’t fretting the downturn in pass-rush production and gave no thought to the idea of resting key players to match Tennessee’s lineup.
“I think the only people that need to be worried about our pass rush are (the teams) we line up against,” he said Tuesday.
The Cowboys can win the NFC East if the Eagles lose their final two games and Dallas beats the Titans and Washington Commanders. Philadelphia locks up the division and home-field advantage throughout conference playoffs with a victory Sunday against the already-eliminated New Orleans Saints (6-9).
“If [the Titans] wanna roll us the ball a couple times and let us go from there, I’m all for that,” Prescott said. “We’ll take it however they want to do it.”
But their own injury concerns could impact both sides of the ball. Cowboys guard Zack Martin (knee) was a full practice participant. Running back Tony Pollard (thigh) and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (neck) did not practice.
Among limited participants Tuesday were linebacker Micah Parsons (hand), safety Jayron Kearse (elbow/back) and defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence (foot) and Sam Williams (concussion).
–Field Level Media