If it’s possible to have a must-win game in mid-November, this Sunday’s game is about as close as it comes for the Indianapolis Colts.
No, they won’t be eliminated with a loss, but at some point too many losses will dig them into too big of a hole to climb out of. A loss to the Tennessee Titans this weekend would come close to doing just that.
The Colts are 4-5 as they come off their bye week, hosting the 5-5 Titans. A win would put the Colts ahead of Tennessee in the AFC South standings and within range of the first-place Texans. More than that, the Colts would have swept the season series against Tennessee and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. But should the Titans win, they would take a two-game lead over the Colts (6-5 to 4-6), would neutralize the head-to-head tiebreaker, and would hold the edge in the next tiebreaker of division record (the Titans would be 2-2 while the Colts would be 1-3). Considering that’s just the battle for second place, it’s safe to say that the Colts need to win this game.
It won’t be easy, however, as the Titans are playing very good football recently. They’re 2-1 since their last meeting with the Colts (a 34-26 loss in Nashville) and are averaging 39.3 points per game and 444.3 yards per game during that stretch. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is playing very well and is the reining AFC Offensive Player of the Week after his performance last week against the Packers, and the Titans are one of the league’s best when it comes to running the football. DeMarco Murray is second in the league in rushing yards with 930 and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns with five, and he’s averaging 4.9 yards per catch. The Titans are first in the NFL in terms of overall rushing yards, third in rushing yards per game, and tied for second in yards per carry. Overall on the year, the Titans rank eighth in points scored per game and sixth in yards per game.
In many ways, actually, the Titans are what Chuck Pagano wants the Colts to be: a team that runs the ball and stops the run. The Titans are third in the league in rushing yards per game and are eighth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. And then in addition to that running game, quarterback Marcus Mariota - a former high first round pick - is playing well. That’s what Pagano wants his Colts team to look like, but on Sunday he’ll have to defend against it.
The Colts rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per game and 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game, but they’re still getting it done offensively. They rank seventh in points per game and 12th in yards per game, and Andrew Luck has the fifth-most passing yards in the NFL. Indy’s defense is among the very worst in the NFL, but the play of Luck and the offense has carried them to their victories. Luck has completed 63.7% of his passes for 2,565 yards (7.4 yards per attempt), 17 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and has been playing at a very high level this season, which will be a big test for Tennessee’s 24th-ranked pass defense.
Indianapolis brings a ten-game winning streak against the Titans into this Sunday’s matchup and an 8-0 all-time record against them at Lucas Oil Stadium, but that history doesn’t account for how the Titans are playing recently - or how the Colts are playing recently, to be honest. The Colts have been inconsistent this year, but if the team that beat the Titans and Packers shows up, they stand a good chance of getting their biggest win of the season to date. But they don’t have much margin for error, both this season and this Sunday, and the Titans are a hot team looking to also make a push for the division title. Expect this to be a close, high-scoring affair, and I’ll take the Colts in a home game with their backs against the wall.
Predicted Score: Colts 34, Titans 31