NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans are desperately chasing division titles as the regular season winds to a close.
Their approach Thursday night will be very different.
Dallas (11-4) still has some hope of a second straight NFC East title with the Cowboys needing to win their final two games with Philadelphia losing at least once.
Surviving Thursday night as healthy as possible is Tennessee’s top priority.
The only way the Titans (7-8) can win a third consecutive AFC South title is by beating the Jaguars in Jacksonville in Week 18. So if coach Mike Vrabel wants to rest as many of his Titans as possible, that’s just fine with the Cowboys.
”If they want to roll us the ball a couple of times and let us go from there, I’m all for that,” Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott said. ”We’ll take it however they want to do it.”
Dallas has won five of six, including a 10-point comeback last week for a 40-34 win to keep Philadelphia from clinching home-field advantage throughout the postseason in the NFC. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott couldn’t agree more, even with a postseason berth already secure.
”We’re trying to build momentum for the playoffs,” Elliott said.
Vrabel said trying to end the Titans’ five-game skid, their longest since 2015, won’t affect who plays or watches. On Wednesday, Tennessee listed eight Titans, including seven starters, as out with three other starters doubtful led by Derrick Henry. Dallas only ruled out only linebacker Leighton Vander Esch for this game.
The banged-up Titans lead the NFL for a second straight year having used 82 different players, including 27 different starters on defense and a season-high 10 rookies last week. They’ll be without veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill again with rookie Malik Willis getting his second consecutive start and fourth this season.
”We are at where we are at,” Vrabel said. ”That is trying to figure out what is the most important thing, what is best for the team, and what is best for the player.”
The biggest question about who sits for the Titans involves Henry, currently second in the NFL with 1,429 rushing yards and tied for second with 13 rushing touchdowns. Henry appeared on the injury report this week with a hip injury, and being listed as doubtful makes it likely he watches Thursday night.
Henry needs only 71 yards and two TDs rushing to become the first player in NFL history with at least 1,500 yards rushing and 15 rushing TDs in three seasons in his career. Henry did it in 2019 and 2020.
He also has at least 100 yards and one TD rushing in each of his past three games. Another performance Thursday night would make him the NFL’s first player to do that in four straight games since, well Henry himself in 2019.
Vrabel sat Henry in a late December game that had no bearing on the Titans’ playoff hopes in 2019. Asked if he’ll be playing, Henry had a brief answer.
”Whatever Coach needs me to do, I’ll be ready,” Henry said.
3 GAMES IN 12 DAYS, AGAIN
The Cowboys are finishing their second stretch this season of three games in 12 days. They almost always do it once a year because of their annual Thanksgiving home game. Dallas got a replay with a 40-34 overtime loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 18 before the victory over the Eagles on Christmas Eve.
Now it’s a five-day gap before visiting the Titans.
”I feel fresh, I feel good,” Elliott said. ”The only thing that could be difficult is just your body and trying to keep back fresh and trying to get back ready. We’ve got a young team. We’ve got a lot of good rotations, so I think we’ve got a fresh team right now.”
WHERE’D THE SACKS GO?
The Cowboys have one sack in the past three games and have dropped to third in the NFL after leading most of the season. The only sack in that stretch was by Micah Parsons, who is fifth in the league with 13.
With mobile MVP candidate Jalen Hurts of Philadelphia out with a sprained shoulder last week, Dallas didn’t sack the much more stationary Gardner Minshew. The Cowboys thought the Eagles emphasized getting the ball out quickly.
”I promise you sacking the quarterback’s not that easy,” Parsons said. ”I could win in 2 seconds, and it still might not be fast enough. If anybody wants to take my job and step in my shoes, you’re more than welcome.”
The Titans’ patchwork offensive line offers Dallas a chance to fix that pass rush. Tennessee put two starting linemen on injured reserve last week, after losing three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan to a torn ACL in September. A key reserve also is among 18 currently on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Rookie right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere was ruled out Wednesday with an ankle injury that sidelined him for the second half last week. That leaves left guard Aaron Brewer as the only starting lineman available from the season opener.
Tennessee has allowed 18 sacks over the past four games, including four by halftime of last week’s 19-14 loss to Houston.
With the Cowboys’ latest comeback, they now are outscoring opponents 127-61 in the fourth quarter. The Titans are averaging a mere 2.4 points in the final 15 minutes this season where they’ve been outscored 71-37. They were shut out in their most recent game.
It didn’t help that the Titans turned the ball over on three of their final four possessions. Dallas leads the NFL with 30 takeaways.
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed.
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