HOUSTON -- Even before their physical dismantling of the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans had been cast as favorites in the AFC South, a title bestowed on them in part based upon their strong play last season, and in part because of the expectations of their developing roster.
A pair of convincing victories in succession have only fortified the belief that the Titans (2-1) are poised to ascend to the throne in their division.
That the Houston Texans (1-2), who have claimed back-to-back AFC South titles, stand in their way from a macro perspective and in the micro view of this weekend's schedule seems fitting, for if Tennessee is to fulfill the promise of its burgeoning talent, it will have to go through Houston to achieve the desired result.
Last season Tennessee's inability to defeat the Texans at Houston's NRG Stadium, where the teams will meet Sunday, partly proved to be the Titans' undoing. They finished 2-4 within the division and, despite matching the Texans' overall 9-7 record, failed to qualify for the playoffs by virtue of Houston posting a 5-1 mark against division foes. The Titans aren't duty-bound to win Sunday, but a victory would help advance the narrative that they have bypassed the Texans.
"Well, I mean it's pretty evident we learned a lesson last year," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "Nobody had more wins than us in the division, we just didn't have enough. I mean, not in our division but I'm saying record-wise. But we didn't have enough in the division and (Texans coach) Bill's (O'Brien) done a good job of winning games in this division, and that's made the difference of why they've won it the last two years, just the record of being in the division.
"So, we understand that. Tough lesson learned for us last year but it's still early this year. Our guys understand what it takes."
What will be required of the Titans is another exceptional performance from third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose poise in the pocket paved the way to the win over Seattle.
Mariota has passed for 696 yards and three touchdowns, but it is the threat he poses in the running game that helps spearhead the offense. After suffering a leg fracture late last season it would stand to reason that Mariota is more judicious when he abandons the pocket. However, he remains committed to playmaking and not overly fretting about the specter of injury.
"Honestly, I can't think like that when I'm out on the field," Mariota said. "I think if you worry about getting injured or worry about getting hurt, you play slow, you don't play like yourself. I don't change my mentality. Every week I just go out there and try to be the best player that I can be for my team and just go out and execute to the best of my ability."
Sunday also represents a critical juncture for the Texans, who opened the season on the heels of an historic storm that flooded the city only to face a short turnaround and a Thursday night game in Cincinnati before hitting the road to play the league champion New England Patriots.
Now, the Texans embark on a rare three-game stretch of home games, a schedule that should enable them to settle in and perhaps take an extended advantage of all the comforts of home.
"We just have to do what we have to do," O'Brien said, "but I do think getting into more of a routine will definitely help, especially a younger player."
One young player in particular, rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, is looking to build upon his promising display at New England. He passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns, engineering a late scoring drive that should have delivered Houston a breakthrough road win.
A victory did not occur, but Watson showed enough to provide fans with promise of more.
"The reason I play football is because I love the game, I love the sport, I love the friendships and everything that comes with it," Watson said. "But at the same time, just giving people -- not just for the city I play for and the teams that I played for before, but just people all around the world, just to be able to give them hope and courage to be able to fulfill their dreams. You can do it by having fun, and you don't have to listen to what all the naysayers are saying. You just go out there, have fun and do it at a high level, and you can impact the world."