published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Titans and Texans feel urgency

HOUSTON -- The Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans have different objectives in mind heading into their regular-season finale today.

For the Titans (8-7), the goal is clear-cut -- win at Reliant Stadium and then hope for the magic combination of losses involving Cincinnati, Denver, Oakland and the New York Jets to earn their first playoff berth since 2008.

And that would set up a rematch with the Texans in the first round of the postseason right back in Houston.

"If we don't take care of our business, there will be no scoreboard watching," Titans kicker Rob Bironas said. "We'll be on the couch watching -- for all of January."

For the Texans (10-5), the incentive is more intangible -- regaining the momentum they seem to have lost in two consecutive defeats after reeling off seven straight wins to clinch their first AFC South title.

Houston has nothing at stake in terms of postseason positioning. The Texans are locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC and will host a game on the first weekend of the playoffs, no matter what happens.

But no one in the locker room wants to go into the franchise's first postseason game riding a losing streak.

"This game is more important than most people will ever know," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "You think that since it doesn't hurt us or help us as far as the playoff run, that it doesn't matter. You've got to be firing on all cylinders when you go into the playoffs. If not, man, ain't no telling what will happen."

The Texans kick-started their regular season with a 41-7 victory in Nashville on Oct. 23. They stayed in first place for the rest of the regular season, despite playing most of their games without star receiver Andre Johnson.

The five-time Pro Bowl selection has been practicing this week, and coach Gary Kubiak expects Johnson to play in the finale. Johnson sat out six games with a right hamstring injury that required minor surgery, started the next two games and then strained his left hamstring. He's been sidelined for the last three games, and he's eager to get some action today, just so he can regain some stamina and timing.

"I'm excited," Johnson said. "I feel like I haven't played football all year. It'll be fun to get back out there and run around a little bit."

Houston also hopes to have defensive coordinator Wade Phillips back calling the plays, but from the press box instead of on the sideline. Phillips, 64, returned to practice this week after undergoing kidney and gall bladder surgery on Dec. 15.

"It's awesome to have him back," rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. "He just has that personality where no matter what goes wrong, he's always calm and I think that is kind of contagious throughout."

The Titans, meanwhile, have only flickering playoff hopes because of a 23-17 victory over Jacksonville last week. They lost to the previously winless Colts on Dec. 18, a setback that now looms large.

And they also remember how the Texans manhandled them on their home field, holding them to 148 yards and 11 first downs. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck conceded that the Titans took their divisional rivals too lightly the first time around.

"I think we probably underestimated how good they were physically," Hasselbeck said. "They're one of the premier teams in the NFL this year, and it just hasn't been the case sometimes in the past.

"They were fantastic that game we played against them [in Nashville]," he said. "They were making plays all over the field in all phases, and they really took it to us. I think that's probably the toughest game we've played this year in terms of just, we were feeling one thing and they really disrupted what our thoughts were and took it to us."

Chris Johnson rushed for only 18 yards in that game, but he's had three 100-yard games since, all Tennessee victories. Johnson needs only 14 yards rushing today to reach 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive season.

"We're fully aware that he can just break out any time," Reed said, "and we just need to secure edges and just make sure he doesn't get out in too many open spaces because that's where he's dangerous."

The Texans' running backs dominated the earlier meeting.

Arian Foster and Ben Tate both went over 100 yards, and Foster also had 100 yards receiving. Foster, named to the Pro Bowl for the second straight season, has seven 100-yard games this year and has topped 100 yards rushing in Houston's last two season finales, both victories.

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