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With just two weeks left in the regular season, every game takes on added importance. Sometimes, though, that is more true for one team than the other.
The Thursday Night Football game between the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys is one such game. No matter what happens on Thursday night, the Titans will be playing for the AFC South title against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 18. But after they defeated the division rival Philadelphia Eagles last week, this game has taken on some added importance to the Cowboys. If they win out and the Eagles lose out, Dallas wins the NFC East. So, this game means a heck of a lot more to Dallas than it does to Tennessee. You don’t need to look much further than the teams’ respective injury reports to see that.
Will the Cowboys stack another win and put even more pressure on the Eagles, or will the Titans pull off the upset in their home stadium? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Thursday, Dec. 29 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Nissan Stadium (Nashville)
Stream: Amazon Prime Video
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Cowboys -11, O/U 40
When the Cowboys have the ball
If you were looking forward to seeing how this explosive Dallas offense would look against the Tennessee defense, well, you might be waiting another four years until these two teams play again. Tennessee listed Jeffery Simmons, Bud Dupree, Amani Hooker, Zach Cunningham, and Dylan Cole as out for this game, and additionally listed Denico Autry and Kristian Fulton as doubtful. In other words, more than half of the Titans’ defensive starters will likely not be available for this game. So, even though Dallas could potentially be without Tony Pollard (who did not practice at all this week due to a thigh injury but did travel with the team to Tennessee), the Cowboys should be well set up for offensive success in this contest.
In the event Pollard does sit, Ezekiel Elliott will likely assume the majority of the snaps; but I wouldn’t be surprised if undrafted rookie Malik Davis played something of a 1B type of role to Elliott’s 1A. In the two games Elliott sat out earlier this season, Davis played just 30 combined snaps behind Pollard, handling 15 total touches. But the Cowboys were also intentionally using those games to gauge how much more than what they were giving him that Pollard’s body could handle. They already know the answer to that question when it comes to Zeke, and the reduced snap load he’s carried since returning from injury has done well to keep him healthy and effective.
Tennessee’s run defense has been one of the best in the NFL throughout this season and the Cowboys’ retooled offensive line is a better run-blocking than pass-protecting unit, but the run defense will be compromised without Simmons, Dupree, Cunningham, and potentially Autry, and the Cowboys should have huge advantages in the passing game against what has already been one of the league’s most burnable secondaries and that could be without both Fulton and Hooker.
CeeDee Lamb is on an absolute heater at the moment, having hauled in 58 passes for 796 yards and six touchdowns since Dak Prescott’s return from a fractured thumb. That’s a full-season pace of 110 catches for 1,507 yards and 11 scores. Lamb ranks ninth in the NFL in yards per route run, according to Tru Media, out of the 274 players who have run 100 routes or more. He’s fifth out of 199 such players since Dak got back — a rise fueled at least in part by increased usage in the slot. Lamb’s aligned there on 55.6% of snaps since Week 7, a figure that’s way up from the 35.9% slot rate he recorded last season. Of note, only three teams have yielded more receptions to players lined up in the slot this season than has Tennessee.
Prescott goes through progressions so quickly that he can at times go away from targeting Lamb, like when he had just three looks after halftime against Philadelphia last week. But despite the gaudy interception total, Dak is playing at an extraordinarily high level right now. He’s tied for sixth in the NFL in EPA per dropback despite having thrown 12 interceptions in just 10 games, for example. And for what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus has graded six of those interceptions as not being turnover-worthy plays, meaning they were the fault of the receiver and not Prescott. (Like the game-ending pick-six against the Jaguars, which bounced off both of Noah Brown’s hands and into the arms of Rayshawn Jenkins.) In this matchup, Prescott should be able to quickly and easily identify targets down the field, and move the ball through the air with relative ease.
When the Titans have the ball
Ryan Tannehill remains out. Ben Jones and Taylor Lewan are on injured reserve. Nicholas Petit-Frere is out. Derrick Henry is doubtful. If you are able-bodied and live in the general Tennessee area, the Titans might need you to suit up on offense.
The Dallas defense has taken a step backward in recent weeks, but the way to beat this group has mostly been through the air. The Malik Willis-led passing game has inspired next to zero confidence that it is capable of beating anybody through the air. In his three starts, Tennessee has totaled 40, 57, and 88 passing yards. Willis himself is just 31 of 61 (50.8%) for 276 yards (4.5 per attempt), with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. He hasn’t even been particularly efficient for a running quarterback, averaging a running back-esque 4.5 yards per carry. The Cowboys did have some trouble with Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields earlier this season, but Willis is not in Hurts or Fields’ league just yet.
Without Henry and with their offensive line extremely shorthanded, the Titans also seem unlikely to power the ball through the Dallas defense on the ground. The Cowboys still won’t have Leighton Vander Esch or Johnathan Hankins on Thursday night, but Demarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons (if he plays) are plenty capable of wrecking Tennessee’s offensive plans if King Henry isn’t out there on the field. And with this game being essentially meaningless for Tennessee anyway, there’s almost no reason for the Titans to put him out there.
Featured Game | Tennessee Titans vs. Dallas Cowboys
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Titans 10