In what amounts to a playoff elimination game, the Tennessee Titans host the Washington Redskins on Saturday night in a matchup of two teams on the periphery of the postseason picture.
Both teams are sitting in eighth place in their respective conference entering Saturday night’s matchup in Nashville, Tenn.
The Titans (8-6) are on a roll, ripping off three wins in a row following a pair of lopsided defeats to draw even with Baltimore and Indianapolis for the second wild card in the AFC. Tennessee, which wraps up the regular season against the Colts, does not own any of the tiebreakers and needs to win out.
“They’re back in the race and so are we,” said Titans head coach Mike Vrabel of the Redskins. “We’re excited to be playing a meaningful game here at home.”
Washington seemingly dropped out of contention in the wake of four consecutive defeats, including a 40-16 beating by the visiting New York Giants in Week 14, but rebounded with a 16-13 victory at Jacksonville last week.
The Redskins are a half-game behind sixth-place Minnesota in the NFC and tied with division rival Philadelphia, but the Eagles own the tiebreaker over them. That doesn’t concern Washington’s players at the moment.
“You would think we’d be out of the whole thing the way everything’s been going, week in and week out,” said Redskins cornerback Josh Norman. “Oh my gosh, this is like a circus. But at the same time, all that doesn’t matter. We are still in this thing.”
Saturday’s matchup will feature near-identical game plans. While Washington has relied on the ageless Adrian Peterson to carry both the ground game and the offense, Tennessee’s revival has been ignited by the late-season emergence of bruising back Derrick Henry.
The third-year running back from Alabama was wading through a nondescript season before erupting over the past two games. Henry rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-9 demolition of Jacksonville two weeks ago and followed that up with 170 yards and two scores in last weekend’s 17-0 shutout at the New York Giants.
The 408 yards in the two wins accounted for nearly half of Henry’s season total and eclipsed the franchise record for most rushing yards in a two-game span that was previously held by former Hall of Famer Earl Campbell. Henry said his turnaround started following a chat with former Titans running back Eddie George.
“He shot me straight, and told me I needed to finish runs, that I needed to be more physical, and make the defense pay,” said Henry. “He told me I wasn’t playing to my potential, and I could play better. That’s the stuff I needed to hear. It gave me a different outlook moving forward.”
Henry’s bulldozing style has relegated quarterback Marcus Mariota to a supporting role. Mariota, who was hindered much of the season by numbness in his throwing hand as a result of an elbow injury, does not have a touchdown pass in the past two games while throwing for a combined 250 yards.
Washington has followed a similar blueprint for much of the season in relying on the 33-year-old Peterson. That formula is unlikely to change after quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy suffered season-ending broken legs and Mark Sanchez floundered in his first start.
Josh Johnson was signed off the street earlier this month, which came one week after he was the No. 1 overall selection in the new Alliance of American Football draft. After not throwing a pass in the NFL since 2011, Johnson was 16 of 25 for 151 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars.
Peterson rushed for 51 yards on 19 carries against Jacksonville’s rugged defense to move within 77 yards of reaching 1,000 for the eighth time in his career — and first since 2015 when he was still with the Minnesota Vikings.
“The look he has in his eyes is contagious because you see how bad he wants it,” said Johnson of Peterson. “When you hand him the ball, it’s very reflective in the way that he plays.”
Johnson will have an easier time against a Tennessee defense that suffered a huge blow with the loss of cornerback Logan Ryan to a broken left fibula a week ago. Malcolm Butler will likely move back into the starting lineup.
“The one thing that Logan did outside of his play and coverage and blitzing, was his communication,” Vrabel said. “So, we’ll all have to pick up the slack. Everybody out there. That’s what happens when guys go down in this league. Somebody has to go out there. Somebody has to take advantage of the opportunity and then be able to communicate, get lined up and help the guy next to you.”