INDIANAPOLIS — As the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans prepare to meet again for the second time in three weeks, they have at least a couple of things in common.
They’re both 7-3 and atop the AFC South Division, although the Colts gained the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage by virtue of a 34-17 road win in Week 10 at Nashville, Tenn.
The Colts and Titans are also coming off impressive wins — the Colts rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat Green Bay 34-31 in overtime while the Titans came back from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter to prevail at Baltimore 30-24 in overtime.
This time, the Sunday setting is Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts can seize a one-game division lead and own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a sweep. The Titans can regain the division lead and control of their own destiny with a win.
David Boclair, publisher/editor of the Sports Illustrated-powered AllTitans site, answers five questions about the Titans.
1. What stood out the most in the Titans' bounce-back win at Baltimore?
The ability to get contributions from players well down the depth chart. Derrick Henry’s game-winning touchdown run in overtime started to the left, behind a third-string tackle (David Quessenberry) and an undrafted rookie guard who had all of 10 snaps before this game (Aaron Brewer). Amani Hooker made the first start of his career at strong safety and came up with a fourth-quarter interception after which the Titans outscored the Ravens 17-3. Backup linebacker Will Compton stepped in after an injury and was one of the defense’s leading tacklers. Overcoming injuries is never easy in the NFL. It is that much harder against a tough, physical team like the Ravens, but Tennessee did it.
2. The Colts didn't really stop Derrick Henry last time, but the score dictated passing and Ryan Tannehill couldn't lead the Titans back. What's the key for Tannehill this time?
He needs the time to stand in the pocket and throw intermediate and down-field passes. The Colts only sacked Tannehill once in that game but they hit him five times. His average yards-per-attempt was 5.44, easily his lowest of the season and more than two yards below his season average (he averaged 7.0 yards per attempt or more in his previous seven contests). Likewise, he has had seven games this season with at least one completion of 25 yards or more. His longest against Indianapolis was 21 yards.
3. The Titans just lost a key defensive leader in linebacker Jayon Brown as well as offensive left tackle Ty Sambrailo. How important were they, and how do their units adjust?
Brown is a huge loss. He is – by far – the Titans’ most well-rounded linebacker, and he was having the best season of his career, in a contract year, no less. He is the defense’s leading tackler and is second in passes defensed. Coaches will find a player – or players – to play the position (see: Question 1) but Brown has the kind of speed that cannot be replaced, and teams with speedy tight ends will take advantage of his absence.
Sambrailo had started five games in place of Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan. No one confused the two, but Sambrailo regularly drew praise from coaches for his competitiveness and good grades from Pro Football Focus for his work in the run game. The question is whether the Titans go back to Quessenberry, a journeyman, or if they look to rookie Isaiah Wilson, one two first-round picks in this year’s draft who has yet to play a game. Wilson is a natural right tackle, but the starter at that spot, Dennis Kelly, can move to the left side, as he has done in previous years.
4. Nyheim Hines had a big game in Nashville. You never know how much the Colts will use a player, they've been all over the map. Do you anticipate a defensive game plan that calls for shadowing Hines and bringing more defenders into the box?
Brown is the type of player who could be used to match up with Hines in the passing game, but he is not available. Backup safety Dane Cruikshank is another player who has taken on assignments such as that, but he too is injured. So, in terms of addressing Hines’ five receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting, coaches likely will have to trust the scheme.
Likewise, there is no reason to expect an overreaction to his 70 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Tennessee’s primary approach on defense is to make teams drive the field. Every opponent this season has had at least one scoring drive of 10 plays or more. So, it is almost unimaginable that coaches would load the box and leave the back end vulnerable, particularly with a quarterback like Philip Rivers, who often knows what a defense is doing before the ball is snapped.
5. Crystal ball time. How do you see this rematch playing out?
As good as Tennessee is at dealing with injuries – and the Baltimore game was not the first time its depth rose up in a big way – it just feels like the current rash of injuries is a bridge too far. If strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and wide receiver Adam Humphries can come back from concussions, it will help. But there are plenty of other holes to fill.
The whole thing feels similar to Week 17 of 2018, when the Titans did not have Marcus Mariota, Jurrell Casey, and Logan Ryan, among others for a winner-take-all game for the final AFC playoff spot, which Indianapolis won.
I do think the Colts, after big victories the last two weeks, are headed for a letdown, but I don’t think this is the game. My prediction: Indianapolis 27, Tennessee 16.