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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys at Titans (Week 17)

This game features some odd circumstances making the starting players a guess.

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This is a game between two unfamiliar teams with increasingly little to play for at the moment. The last time the Cowboys faced off against the Titans, it was the first game after Dallas had acquired Amari Cooper, in the 2018 season. The Titans were in their first year under head coach Mike Vrabel, and they managed to spoil Cooper’s Cowboys debut by handing the Cowboys their fifth loss in eight tries.

The stakes for this game are quite different. Vrabel, who won Coach of the Year a season ago, is in danger of finishing with his first losing season and missing the playoffs for the first time since that 2018 season. Tennessee has lost five straight games, and two weeks ago they lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill to an ankle injury that will almost certainly keep him out again this week.

More than that, though, an odd twist in the divisional standings has rendered this game completely meaningless for the Titans. Regardless of what they do against the Cowboys, they’ll be playing a winner-take-all for the AFC South title in Week 18 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That even led to Vrabel hinting that he may opt to rest several starters this week against Dallas in an effort to have his team fresh for the vastly more important Week 18 game.

As for the Cowboys, they have only slightly more to gain from a win this week. They proved their worth by beating the Eagles on Christmas Eve, and now they’re locked into the top Wild Card seed unless they end up winning the NFC East. Those odds, while still alive, are extremely slim. They would need to beat Tennessee and Washington while needing Philadelphia to lose to both the Saints and Giants. It’s not likely to happen, but it could happen.

None of that matters to Mike McCarthy, though. The Cowboys coach is almost sure to keep preparing for games like they’re of the utmost importance, which is already a stark difference from Vrabel this week. And even with this game coming on a Thursday, Dallas still gets one extra day of rest from normal Thursday Night Football games given that their last game was played on a Saturday. Still, they’ll have a quick turnaround for this road trip, and even less time to figure out which players to prepare for.

The top headline for Tennessee at the moment is rookie quarterback Malik Willis, who is likely going to make his fourth career start on Thursday. The Titans are 1-2 in games Willis has started so far, with the lone win coming over the Texans. That game, though, featured Willis attempting just 10 passes; he attempted 16 and 23 passes in his next two starts, and lost both games, with the more recent one also coming against the Texans.

Willis was considered the quarterback with the highest ceiling in the draft this year, but also the most raw talent. In his appearances this year, it’s been clear that Willis still has a long way to go; he’s attempted 61 passes over seven games and just scored his first touchdown - coming on a run - while turning it over five times.

Of course, the biggest piece of the offense is, and always will be, Derrick Henry. The battering ram of a running back is especially hard to tackle, and Tennessee has built their offense around Henry, who leads the league in rushing attempts and is second in rushing yards. That hasn’t amounted to team success, though, as the Titans are tied for 15th in yards per carry and 18th in rushing DVOA. And that’s when they have Henry available; the star running back was one of 11 Titans who didn’t practice on Monday and may be in line to get some rest in this game.

Defensively, the Titans have struggled for most of the year. They’re allowing the 12th most yards per play and are tied for the fifth most yards per pass attempt. The secondary has been especially vulnerable, as Tennessee ranks 27th in pass defense DVOA. They’re an elite run defense, though: only the 49ers are giving up fewer yards per carry, and the Titans are similarly second in run defense DVOA. Again, though, the question is how many of those run stoppers will be suiting up on Thursday, as seven different key contributors on defense did not practice on Monday.

The Cowboys will surely want to win this game and keep their very slim hopes for a division crown alive. It’s also an opportunity to build on the momentum they started against the Eagles. In that game, Dak Prescott played lights out against a very good secondary while the much-maligned run defense held the Eagles to just three yards per carry. Now, the Cowboys face a defense that’s significantly weaker against the pass and a running game that almost single-handedly powers the offense.

Neither team stands to gain a whole lot in this one, but the Cowboys have yet to publicly consider waving the white flag and that’s the biggest difference so far in this one. Dallas is currently favored by 10 points, and for good reason. However, the last time they were favored by double digits they nearly lost to the Texans. This game represents a golden opportunity to shed the perception of the Cowboys as a team that plays down to their opponent’s level.

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