NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Texans and Tennessee Titans now have a new reason not to like each other.
The Titans, who left Houston in 1997, and the franchise that replaced the former Oilers have had an intense rivalry from the time the Texans started playing in the new AFC South back in 2002 with bragging rights on the line. With Peyton Manning still recovering from surgery, the Titans and Texans meet Sunday for the first time with the AFC South lead at stake.
"It always has a little something special, especially when it's Houston," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "The fact that we are both sitting here with a chance to stay in first place makes it a lot more fun."
The Titans (3-2) grabbed a half-game edge in the division resting through their bye week when Houston (3-3) lost its second straight game last week 29-14 to Baltimore. Texans linebacker Connor Barwin said there's no hiding any secrets of what this game means.
"This is for the division right now. It's a huge game, and we need to win a game, too," Barwin said. "We can't lose any more games, so no, I don't think it's a secret to anybody. I don't think anybody around here thinks it's not that important. I think we all understand what's at stake."
Tennessee at least has some experience as the only AFC South team other than Indianapolis to win this division with titles in 2002 and 2008.
The Texans still must prove they can reach the playoffs for the first time in their short history, and they're busy regrouping from two consecutive losses combined while dealing with injuries. Andre Johnson likely will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury, while Matt Schaub's chest and right hip are sore. Fullback James Casey also could be out with his chest injury.
Schaub said the Texans remain confident they'll get over the hump.
"If you aren't confident in what you are doing, then you are not going to do it anyway," Schaub said. "If you believe in yourself and your team that you are going to get it done, then you will. You just have to keep working at it, and good things will happen to you."
Even without Johnson, the Texans still have Arian Foster, the NFL's top rusher last season. Texans coach Gary Kubiak thinks Foster is coming around after a hamstring injury limited him early. Foster is a big reason Houston is averaging 126.2 yards rushing per game.
The Titans spent their bye week after a 38-17 loss at Pittsburgh studying their own run game. Chris Johnson has 250 yards rushing this season, and Tennessee is averaging 66.6 yards rushing, which is last in the NFL. Left tackle Michael Roos said they looked at every run play, which helped the Titans realize everyone has a share of the blame.
"It was on us as an offensive line at times different guys not doing their job and as a whole it is a whole offensive team thing," Roos said. "Whether a tight end missed a block or Chris a bad read, but there were a lot of bad blocks by us. We weren't playing up to par. We worked hard ... to fix that."
The Texans have seen enough of Johnson not to overlook him. Johnson ran for 130 yards in Nashville last December as the teams split the season series for a third straight year. Barwin said the Titans paid Johnson his $53 million extension for a reason.
"I've played him when he's had nobody blocking for him, and he's gone 80 yards," Barwin said. "I remember my rookie year, he went 99 yards on a draw play, so the guy can make anybody look stupid and can take it all the way in a second, so I'm not really looking at three yards a carry right now."
Houston will be playing its second game without linebacker Mario Williams, but the Texans are third in the NFL with 17 sacks. Tennessee has protected Matt Hasselbeck pretty well this season, and the veteran is ranked second in the AFC to Tom Brady with a 95.9 passer rating. Hasselbeck has been sacked seven times, and Munchak doesn't want him taking a beating.
"When your quarterback is getting wacked and eventually it takes a toll on his throws and his confidence. They are doing a nice job up front ...," Munchak said.
The Titans also believe they learned a big lesson a year ago when they came off their bye and lost five straight games in finishing 6-10. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan said this is a different team with different circumstances starting a three-game homestand.
"We know we're sort of in the driver's seat if we can win at home against a really good football team," Finnegan said.