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Titans 45, Colts 26: What We Learned

Physical play separates Tennessee from the pack in the AFC South.

The Tennessee Titans started fast and did not stop.

They scored touchdowns on their first two offensive possessions and eventually pulled away to a 45-26 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The victory gave them a leg up in the AFC South and showcased their power running game led by Derrick Henry. Tennessee had more than a 4:1 edge in rushing yards, 229-56, and Henry scored three rushing touchdowns, all before halftime.

“When you can run the ball for what we did and hold them to what we did, that’s the difference in the football game,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “That’s how you define physicality.”

The fact that the more physical team won is hardly enlightening.

Here are some things we did learn Sunday:

The road to the top of the AFC South runs through Nashville: The Titans (8-3) took sole possession of first place in the division and established themselves as the team to beat over the remaining five weeks.

Not only do they now have a split with Indianapolis in the season series (7-4), they have a better conference record which is the next tiebreaker criterium. Tennessee is 6-3 against the rest of the AFC while the Colts are 3-4 with nothing but AFC opponents remaining on their schedule.

The Titans went 3-3 against the division in each of their first two seasons under Vrabel, but for the second year in a row they have beaten each of the other three AFC South teams once. In 2019, Tennessee lost the first meeting with all three (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Houston) but responded with victories in the rematch.

Now, it has the opportunity to go 5-1 and firmly establish itself as the class of the field.

“You’ve got to play your best ball at the back end of the season, man,” inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “I feel like that was the biggest thing for us. The number one thing is for us to do the little things that we’re doing, stay healthy and just play on all three phases, man. Play really good football and I think we’ll be alright.”

• Imitation leads to inspiration: As part of the preparation for the Week 11 victory at Baltimore, the Titans used wide receiver Cameron Batson at quarterback on the scout team to mimic the designed runs by Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Apparently, that gave somebody an idea.

With 1:52 to play in the first half, on third-and-1 from the Indianapolis 16, Batson lined up in the backfield, took a direct snap from center and ran the ball to the right. He gained five yards, moved the chains and set up Derrick Henry’s third touchdown of the day, an 11-yard run on the next play. That score gave the Titans a 14-point lead (28-14) for the first time and allowed them to start to pull away.

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Batson had two rushes for 15 yards coming into the contest. Both of those were on jet sweep actions when he took handoffs from Ryan Tannehill. This one gave opposing defenses in the coming weeks one more thing to consider when preparing for Tennessee.

“It was hard-fought the whole way,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Offense, defense kind of came together. We did what we needed to do.”

Including at least one thing they had not done.

• Knowledge is power? Try points: With touchdowns on their first two possessions, the Titans built a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.

It was their third game this season with 14 points in the first quarter. The other two were against Jacksonville in Week 2 and against Houston in Week 6. That means they completed the trifecta against their AFC South opponents.

“There’s still some plays we’d like to have back and do a little better,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Happy with the way we came out and played the first half … and did what we needed to do in the second half.”

When you know an opponent well, you can craft a plan and expect that you won’t see something that will force you to deviate dramatically from that plan.

If the plan works, it can have an immediate impact. That is what has happened in three of four division games this season and bodes well for upcoming contests at Jacksonville (Dec. 13) and Houston (Jan. 3).

• Knowledge is power? Try yards: Henry rushed for 178 yards on 27 carries, which made it his second-best performance of the season in terms of yards and yards per carry (6.6).

Henry now has rushed for 150 yards or more seven times in his NFL career. Five of them have come against AFC South opponents. He had done it twice each against Jacksonville and Houston. Now, he has completed the trifecta with one against Indianapolis. His previous high against the Colts was 149 yards on Dec. 1, 2019, which was the last time he played at Lucas Oil Stadium and the start of a streak of eight straight road games in which he has rushed for 100 yards or more. That is tied for the NFL’s second longest such streak over the past 60 years.

In this case, maybe it is not that Henry knows what he faces in the division rivals. It could be that those defenses know all too well what is coming and their enthusiasm about trying to stop it pales in comparison to teams that don’t see it nearly as often.

“We’ve talked about it, they have the best rushing attack in the NFL, the best back in the NFL,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “We knew it would be a challenge. I thought we handled it better in the second half, but we have to play better team defense for 60 minutes.”