INDIANAPOLIS – From the outside looking in, the next step for the Indianapolis Colts is about as big as it gets considering more than half of the season remains.
It comes against the Tennessee Titans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and the ramifications are undeniable.
Frank Reich acknowledged as much Monday afternoon.
“Obviously a big game, an important game,’’ he said. “The Titans obviously are a very good football team, very well coached. The team is playing very well, so it’ll be a great challenge for us.’’
The Colts’ 30-18 win over the elements – a “bomb cyclone” and “atmospheric river” – and San Francisco 49ers Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium was their third in four games following an 0-3 start.
The Titans completed an impressive sweep of last year’s AFC Championship game participants by dominating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-3 Sunday. The previous week, they handled Buffalo 34-31.
That sets up a divisional rematch that carries much heavier consequences for the Colts than Tennessee. The Titans won round 1 with a 25-16 nod in week 3 in Nashville.
It’s not win-or-else, but it’s close.
If the Colts earn a seasonal split, they climb within one game of the Titans in the AFC South and remain a serious threat. But a Tennessee win could essentially eliminate Indy from divisional considerations. It would fall three games back with nine to play, although the cushion actually would be a fat four games based on having been swept by the Titans.
That probably would force the Colts to travel a different path to the postseason – as a wild card in what is becoming a wide-open AFC. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Colts are 50-50 to reach the playoffs. The Titans’ odds sit at 92%.
Clearly, Sunday’s outcome at Lucas Oil Stadium will impact the Colts, one way or the other.
Even so, don’t expect Reich or his players to flinch.
One of Reich’s bedrock principles is taking care of the moment: 1-0.
Asked if the enormity of Sunday is one of those rare situations where “1-0’’ needs to be accentuated, Reich smiled.
“We just have to push it,’’ he said, laughing lightly. “We all know it’s a big game.’’
He shared a message delivered two weeks ago by linebacker Zaire Franklin.
“Zaire said something to the team about, ‘Don’t’ get too high, don’t get too low,’’’ Reich said. “What you find in this league is that right here has got to be good enough.’’
He held out his right hand, level and steady.
“You’ve got to be able to go into a big game that’s really important, and my experience is in those games, you can’t get caught up in the emotion of it,’’ Reich said. “It’s actually the teams that can stay right here (again, right hand, level and steady) and just continue to execute and continue to do what you do to play good football. That’s the way to handle the big games.’’
It’s imperative for the Colts to handle their business Sunday to remain relevant in the AFC South.
They’ve reached the playoffs in two of Reich’s three seasons as head coach, but each time as a wild card. The Colts haven’t won the AFC South since capturing back-to-back titles in 2013-14.
For those interested, the Colts remain the division’s most successful member since 2011. A breakdown: Indy 39-23 (.629), Houston 36-26 (.581), Tennessee 28-34 (.452), Jacksonville 21-41 (.339).
Quarterback Carson Wentz admitted he occasionally allows himself to check the pulse of the rest of the AFC.
“Kind of,’’ he said after passing for 150 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another against the Niners. “Really singularly focused each week, too, at the same time. Yeah, we know it’s wide open, and there is a lot of who is beating who every single week.
“So, we’ve got to be ready. This was a huge one for us. Hopefully propel us into a big one next week.’’
“Optimistic” on Hilton and Smith
The Colts might benefit from the return of two starters.
Reich is “very optimistic’’ wideout T.Y. Hilton will be available for Sunday after missing the San Francisco game with a quadriceps injury.
“I thought T.Y. was close last week but didn’t make it,’’ he said. “Reading between the lines there, I would be very optimistic that he should make it this week.’’
Meanwhile, right tackle Braden Smith has a chance of returning after missing six games with a foot injury. He practiced on a limited basis Friday.
“Braden, I don’t think was quite as far along as T.Y., but Braden was making good progress,’’ Reich said. “I’d say I’m optimistic on Braden, but probably a little less so than T.Y.’’
Taylor not the closer
Jonathan Taylor continued to pile up the yards against the Niners but wasn’t on the field when Sunday night’s victory was clinched.
After rushing 18 times for 107 yards and one touchdown, he looked on as Nyheim Hines handled the running duties on the Colts’ final two drives. That included the six-play, 39-yard possession that ended with Wentz’s sealing 28-yard touchdown pass to Michael Pittman Jr.
Reich insisted the decision had nothing to do with ball-security concerns with Taylor, who fumbled twice in the game, losing one on the Colts’ first offensive snap.
“No, that was a coach’s decision,’’ he said. “He felt a little something . . . it’s all good.’’
Taylor wasn’t on the injury report last week and hasn’t been listed since being limited due to a knee injury prior to the Miami game in week 4.
The team’s 2020 second-round draft pick has rushed for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games and is the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 579 yards.
Tennessee’s Derrick Henry sits atop the list with 869 yards.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.