The Indianapolis Colts have had a very rough start to the 2015 season, dropping their first two games by a combined score of 47-21 and having the lowest-scoring offense in the league through two weeks. Now they begin a three-game stretch against AFC South opponents, starting with a road trip to take on the Tennessee Titans this weekend.
The Colts are on a current 13-game win streak against their own division dating back to 2012, the longest such streak of any team in the NFL by five games (the Broncos are second with eight straight wins against their division). And the Colts' win streak against the Titans is equally impressive, with the team having won the last seven matchups dating back to 2011. Furthermore, the Colts are 12-1 in their last 13 games against the Titans (since 2008) and are 20-4 since the 2003 season. In short, the Colts have absolutely dominated this season series, but that doesn't mean much for this weekend.
"Zero," head coach Chuck Pagano said this week on what that win streak means, and he's right. It's an impressive number, but it doesn't mean that this will be an easy game, especially for a struggling team like the Colts. The Titans are trending in the right direction and seem to have a franchise quarterback now after selecting Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick in the draft. They are better than they have been in several years, while the Colts are struggling. If Indy wants to keep up their win streak against the Titans and the AFC South, they'd better come ready to play on Sunday. Let's preview some of the most important matchups of the game:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Titans Defense
We really can't put anything here other than the much maligned Colts' offensive line. Through the first two games, they have been bad. The interior of the line in particular has struggled, with Lance Louis, Khaled Holmes, and Todd Herremans all underwhelming. While the struggles of the offensive line don't absolve Andrew Luck of blame, they do help us understand a bit why he is struggling, as he is being pressured and hit a lot. Even Chuck Pagano added to the discussion this week, as after the game Monday night against the Jets he acknowledged that their offensive line hasn't been great for the past three years yet Luck has still played well behind it, so he needs to continue to do that. And that's accurate. It's unlikely that this group will get much better (without freeing Joe Reitz, that is), so it will be up to Andrew Luck to play well despite being under pressure and it will be up to Pep Hamilton to limit the harm of the line, neither of which they have done so far. This week, they will be facing a good test in the Titans. They can get after the quarterback, having the likes of Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, and Derrick Morgan - who is tied for second in the NFL with three sacks already. Casey is one of the better defensive linemen that the Colts will face this season, and the Titans defense now also has Dick LeBeau calling the shots - adding another level of intrigue. If the Colts can't protect Andrew Luck and block in the run game (or at least do good enough), it could be another rough offensive output. Winning in the trenches will be key for the Colts' offense this week.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Titans Offense
Marcus Mariota has had a fantastic start to his rookie season. He has completed 34 of 53 passes (64.2%) for 466 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions for a league-leading passer rating of 129.9. He has been as good as advertised so far, but in the Titans' 28-14 loss to the Browns last week, Mariota was under constant pressure. The Browns racked up seven sacks and 11 quarterback hits against Mariota, preventing him from making some of the plays we know he can make. There is an offensive line epidemic around the league, and it's entirely possible that the Titans' offensive line is actually worse than the Colts' line. And that's where the key to the game lies when the Colts are on defense - winning in the trenches, just like the key to the game when the Colts are on offense. Defensively, the Colts have a lot of injuries at cornerback, and they will enter the game with just Vontae Davis, Jalil Brown, Josh Thomas, and Eric Patterson. Outside of Davis, that's not an intimidating group, and they'll need help in the area of pass rush - something the Colts haven't done well this year at all. Their only sack this year is by defensive lineman Henry Anderson, who has been fantastic. And really, the defensive line as a whole this year has done really well, and that will need to continue against the Titans this week. But also, guys like Trent Cole (if he plays, as he is questionable), Robert Mathis (for however many snaps he plays), and Jonathan Newsome will need to be able to get after Mariota and prevent him from having the time to pick a depleted Colts secondary apart.
Why the Colts Will Win
The struggles won't continue... right? Andrew Luck is too good to keep playing like this, even with a bad line. The Colts have too much talent to keep letting it slip away, by not utilizing the tight ends or by not giving Frank Gore and the run game enough chances. Though the first two games have been terrible, a big part of that has been Luck - and so because of that, you get the feeling that they can turn it on at any point and get rolling. What better time than against a division opponent? After an 0-2 start last year, the Colts hung 44 points on the scoreboard in a division road game (against the Jaguars), and I don't think it would surprise anyone to see that happen again - because, again, this offense can just turn it on at any point. Furthermore, the defense has actually been impressive overall this year, and early on they haven't been the problem. In the Andrew Luck era, the Colts have lost 20 games total - in only seven of them has the Colts' opponent been held under 30 points, and the loss to the Jets despite allowing just 20 points was the second-lowest point total allowed in a loss since the Luck era began (they allowed 19 to the Chargers in a 19-9 loss in 2013). If the offense gets it going, there's plenty of reason to think the defense will be limit the Titans offense enough to win it.
Why the Colts Won't Win
If there's a chance of the Colts' AFC South win streak coming to an end this season, this weekend would seem like the most logical of any games this year. The Colts are reeling, and the Titans are looking for an early statement win Mariota at quarterback. If he keeps up the level of play we've seen from him so far this year he will provide the toughest quarterback test the Colts have faced yet this season, while the Titans have the talent to give Andrew Luck trouble and win the matchups against the offensive line. At some point Luck will find his rhythm, but keeping him under constant pressure on Sunday would be the best thing the Titans could do to ensure that it's not against them. Playing at home with excitement building about their quarterback and with the best of the division coming to town, the Titans could be poised to give the Colts a very tough battle.
I don't expect this game to be the smooth sailing that some Colts fans seem to expect. The Colts have enough issues that I think some will linger, even if Andrew Luck gets it going. But, as head coach Chuck Pagano said this week, "we just need a win." That's it. That's the goal. And getting a win against an AFC South opponent would be huge. The Titans have played some close ones against the Colts in recent years, and this might be the best threat they've posed to Indy in a while. It won't be easy by any means and, honestly, it might not be that pretty either, but a win is a win, and I think the Colts finally get their first of the year this Sunday.