Titans at Colts: How we see it

Indianapolis Colts

Lucas Oil Stadium (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Tennessee Titans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4.

Pivotal rematch

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the second meeting in the span of 18 days of these 7-3 AFC South rivals. In case you’ve forgotten, Indy won Round 1 34-17 in Nashville Nov. 12.

FiveThirtyEight.com lays it out rather nicely. If the Colts complete their season sweep, their odds to earn a playoff spot move to 91% and to win the AFC South are at 83%. But with a loss, those odds plummet to 55% and 14%, respectively.

That disparity is because with a win, the Colts would move to 9-3 and into a one-game lead in the division. But it actually would be a two-game lead with five to play based on having swept the Titans.

The closing five-game stretch for each, with the combined record of the opponents:

The Colts (25-27, .481): at Houston (4-7), at Las Vegas (6-4), Houston (4-7), at Pittsburgh (10-0), Jacksonville (1-9).

The Titans (23-29, .442): Cleveland (7-3), at Jacksonville (1-9), Detroit (4-7), at Green Bay (7-3), at Houston (4-7).

About that sweep

Normally, it’s difficult to sweep a season series when we’re talking about a pair of competitive franchises. But since the formation of the AFC South in 2002, the Colts have, well, owned the Titans. They lead that portion of the series 28-9 and have swept the Titans in 11 of 18 seasons. The Colts have swept them seven times since 2010, the last coming in 2018.

Just a reminder: that history lesson will have zero impact on Sunday’s rematch.

Next men up

We’ve contended from the start of training camp in late July general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich had put together the team’s deepest roster in several years. That figures to be put to the test.

Five starters are out: center Ryan Kelly (neck), linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle), defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (COVID), defensive end Denico Autry (COVID) and running back Jonathan Taylor (COVID).

“This is normal in the NFL,’’ Reich said about losing players to injury and, in this instance, the coronavirus. “Good teams overcome it, so that is what we need to do.’’

Danny Pinter, a fifth-round draft pick out of Ball State, probably steps in for Kelly and makes his first career start. His rookie season has consisted of 27 scattered snaps in seven games. He’s taken a few at center when Kelly has had a temporary injury issue.

With leading rusher Taylor out at least one game, the load shifts to Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, while Zaire Franklin might join the linebacker mix with Okereke out. With 45 snaps, Franklin is the only backup linebacker to step on the field on defense.

The absence of Buckner and Autry up front should mean more work for Kemoko Turay, Taylor Stallworth, Rob Windsor and perhaps Ben Banogu, who’s been a healthy scratch the last three games.

Contain Henry . . . Duh!

Sometimes, it’s not complicated. Sometimes, it’s downright simple. Sunday, it’s simple.

The overriding objective is to limit the damage done by the NFL’s top running back. And that would be Derrick Henry. He’s on pace to be the first back to win consecutive rushing titles since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006-07, and it would behoove the Colts to slow his roll.

Despite the presence of QB1 Ryan Tannehill (22 TDs, 4 interceptions) and receiving threats A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, the Titans’ offensive universe revolves around the 6-3, 247-pound Henry.

“I’m quite sure that their plan is to feature Derrick Henry,’’ Reich said.

Henry has rushed 229 times for 1,079 yards, both league highs. He’s the only back since coordinator Matt Eberflus’ arrival in 2018 to rush for at least 100 yards, and each occurred in the last two shots at Indy.

Henry is going to get his. He’s that good. The key is to keep him in the 100-110-yard range and not allow him to go off for 150-plus.

The losses of Buckner, Okereke and Autry clearly make that task more difficult.

Keep it up on offense

The Colts have gotten themselves into position to place a hammerlock on the AFC South by winning four of their last five. It’s no coincidence Philip Rivers and the offense have picked up their game over that stretch. They’ve averaged 397 yards per game, including 112.6 on the ground. They rushed for 273 yards the last two weeks against the Titans and Packers.

Rivers? Over the last five, he’s completing 66.7% of his passes for 1,456 yards with 10 TDs, three interceptions and a 99.4 passer rating. When he’s able to balance being aggressive with taking care of the football, the offense is more than good enough.

It will be interesting to see whether an injury to his big toe impacts Rivers’ throwing mechanics and efficiency.

Rookie wideout Michael Pittman Jr. posted his first 100-yard game in Nashville (seven catches, 101 yards) and followed that up with a three-catch, 66-yard outing against the Packers that included his first TD, a 45-yarder.

Maybe Pittman’s continued emergence will open things up for T.Y. Hilton. The four-time Pro Bowl wideout has just 29 catches for 327 yards and no touchdowns. He hasn’t had a 100-yard game in 22 straight games, including the playoffs.

And the winner is

Colts 27, Titans 24: The injuries and COVID-19 issues nearly convinced us to switch up and go with the Titans. Kelly is the brains of the o-line. Taylor is coming off arguably his best game. Buckner and Autry are d-line forces, and Okereke is a force against the run and in coverage. The Titans also are dealing with injuries, most notably on the offensive line. They’re on their third left tackle – you’re next, David Quessenberry – while left guard Rodger Safford missed last week’s game with Baltimore and is questionable with an ankle injury and center Ben Jones is questionable with a knee injury. We’re trying not to be a homer, but we’re going with the home team in a game that very likely determines whether the Colts reach the playoffs.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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