Reasons to Believe: Titans at Colts

David Boclair

NASHVILLE – When the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts wrapped up their 2018 season series a playoff spot was at stake.

The AFC South rivals will conclude their annual business in Week 13 of the current season when they meet Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. While the winner is not certain to make the playoffs, a Titans’ loss would reduce their chance to reach the postseason to minimal, at best.

Both teams come into the game with identical 6-5 records. Indianapolis currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker because it won the first matchup and can effectively create a two-game advantage on Tennessee with a victory this time.

That makes this a must-win against an opponent the Titans have beaten just twice in their last 16 tries.

“They’re a physical football team,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “They’re well-coached. They play extremely hard. Very few penalties. They don’t hurt themselves. They haven’t thrown a lot of interceptions. They commit to the run. Their defense is fast, aggressive. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”

Three reasons to believe the Titans will win Sunday

Missing pieces: Indianapolis’ leading receiver, T.Y. Hilton, and leading rusher, Marlon Mack, have been ruled out due to injuries. Those two combined for 106 total yards and a touchdown in this season’s first meeting and 169 yards and one touchdown in last season’s Week 17 showdown. Also out is tight end Eric Ebron, who was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week. Ebron caught a touchdown pass in each of the last two meetings. That is a lot of production for the Colts to replace.

Hammering Henry: As he did late last season, Derrick Henry once again has emerged as the centerpiece of Tennessee’s offense. For much of his career, he has had success against the Colts. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner has averaged better than five yards per carry in each of the last five meetings and has run for 75 yards or more in four of the five, including his first career 100-yard game (131 yards on 19 carries, Oct. 16, 2017). When he gets the ball, good things happen.

Holding tight: Only six teams have committed fewer turnovers than the Titans, who have 12 (six interceptions, six lost fumbles), and only seven teams have fewer takeaways than the Colts, who have 13 (eight interceptions, five fumble recoveries). Tennessee is 5-2 in 2019 when it wins or breaks even in the turnover battle. The offense has lost at least one fumble (five total) in the last four games but the Colts have gone two in a row without a fumble recovery and don’t have any in three games against division opponents this season. Turnovers often decide games like this, and Tennessee can feel good about its prospects for ball security in this one.

Three reasons to believe the Titans will lose Sunday

House of horrors: In 11 trips to Lucas Oil Stadium since 2008, when the building became the Colts’ home, Tennessee has won just once. That was a four-point victory in 2016. The last visit was a 28-point defeat (38-10) in 2017, which topped the 2014 game (a 41-17 loss) for the Titans’ most lopsided loss there. It took two tries before they even scored against the Colts there because the first was a 23-0 defeat. Even in 2011, when Indianapolis went 2-14, its first victory was at home against the Titans (27-13). Simply put, it has been a tough place for Tennessee.

Well grounded: The Colts not only have one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses (third, 144.2 yards per game). They also have one of the top rushing defenses (seventh, 97.0 yards per game). Tennessee’s two best rushing games of the season have come in the last two weeks (225 yards against Kansas City and 219 yards against Jacksonville) but the going is likely to be a bit tougher in this one, especially if the Colts can control the ball and the clock with their own run game.

Keep it moving: Indianapolis is one of six teams that averages better than 22 first downs per game and maintains good balance when moving the chains (91 first downs rushing, 122 first downs passing). The Colts also are among the top 10 in third-down percentage (eighth, 44.4 percent) and fourth-down percentage (T-seventh, 62.5 percent). Not surprisingly, they’re also among the top 10 in time of possession (seventh, 31:20). It will be tough for the Titans to score if they can’t force Indianapolis to punt all that often.

The bottom line

The team that is better on third down wins this game. Indianapolis’ defense won’t allow the type and frequency of big plays the Titans’ offense has produced in recent weeks, and its offense – methodical under normal circumstances – will have to be patient and plodding without most of its primary playmakers.

Whichever side keeps the chains moving and, when it gets close, reaches the end zone rather than settles for field goals will prevail.

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