Can Colts, Titans Avoid 'White Out' From AFC Playoff Contention?

Phillip B. Wilson

The Indianapolis Colts are asking fans to wear white and turn Lucas Oil Stadium into a “white out” for Sunday’s important 1 p.m. kickoff against the Tennessee Titans.

That could approve more appropriate than the Colts realize — if they don’t win this matchup of 6-5 AFC playoff hopefuls, you can probably use white out to erase them from the list of postseason contenders.

Four teams at 6-5 are vying for the sixth and final playoff spot, which means the Colts’ margin for error has become increasingly small because most tiebreakers aren’t in their favor. That means they probably have to finish at least 10-6, as the team did last year, to keep playing in January.

“This team has never been one that looks far ahead,” center Ryan Kelly said. “We kind of just keep our blinders on and keep what’s right in front of us.

The Colts are banged up, too, entering this game without their top pass catcher, four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf), and their top rusher, Marlon Mack (fractured hand), among others in a lengthy list of walking wounded. Rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell (hand fracture) has been limited in practice and it’s uncertain if he returns after a three-game absence.

Reich, ever the understated optimist, expressed enthusiasm about how other players will step up and make the most of the opportunity. But the fact is the Colts have lost three of four in what seems like a fade to the season’s finish while the Titans, reborn with former Miami Dolphins castoff Ryan Tannehill thriving at quarterback, have won four of five.

Recent history, if nothing else, favors the Colts. They’ve won the last three meetings, including 19-17 at Tennessee in Week 2. Since the end of 2008, the Colts have dominated the series with 19 of 22 wins.

Both teams are similar in offensive approach in wanting to establish the run — the Colts are third at 144.2 yards per game while the Titans, led by workhorse running back Derrick Henry, are 11th at 122.8 yards per game. Henry’s 991 rushing yards rank fourth.

Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and his defensive teammates are well aware of what Henry brings to the equation as a punishing blend of physicality and speed. Henry was “limited” to 82 yards on 15 carries with one TD in Week 2. One factor worth watching, though, is Henry was limited in practice this week with a sore hamstring, but the Titans sound confident he will be ready.

“With their game, you want to make sure you get his feet stopped early,” Leonard said. “Once he gets going, he’s a big guy, a fast guy, so you don’t want that train to get going.”

The Colts are eighth in rushing defense while the Titans are 12th.

But make no mistake, Tannehill is the X factor for the visitors. Since the benching of former franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota, Tannehill has completed 111 of 154 passes (72.1 percent) for 1,420 yards and 10 TDs with four interceptions. He’s had at least two TD passes in each of the four starts that the Titans have won.

“Really, what’s happened in the past doesn’t really matter,” Tannehill said of the Colts’ recent domination in the series. “It’s how we go out and prepare this week, get ourselves ready to play and execute on Sunday.”

What jumps off the stat sheet is how Titans quarterbacks have taken 43 sacks, more than double the Colts’ 21. As much as the Colts defense must contain Henry, it’s imperative that pass rushers get to Tannehill. The Colts have 26 sacks whereas the Titans defense has 30.

But Tannehill is also mobile — he has three rushing TDs — which means he’ll probably require the Colts to use Leonard or someone as a spy.

While the Colts might need help to make the playoffs, the Titans are convinced they can control their own destiny. Three of their last five games are on the road, but they face the AFC South Division-leading Houston Texans (7-4) twice in the last three weeks in addition to having the chance to jump past the Colts on Sunday.

Both teams have yet to play the New Orleans Saints (10-2), who clinched the NFC South Division title on Thanksgiving and will be trying to secure the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in these final games. Difference is, the Colts have to travel to New Orleans while the Titans will host the Saints. Again, advantage Titans.

“They are well-coached in all three phases,” Reich said of Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. “It will be a good challenge. We’re excited. I mean our guys are ready to go.”

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