The Colts enter their Week 17 with a playoff spot on the line, and by the time they kick off, they may be playing for the division title. That’s a pretty impressive swing for a Colts team that was facing an embarrassing 1-5 record and the prospect of a top draft pick back in Week 6.
Head coach Frank Reich and company righted the ship and have guided this team to a complete turnaround, putting together a run that makes this team one no one wants any part of in the playoffs. With all that said, they still need a win to make those playoff hopes possible, and that means showing up and winning their match-ups on Sunday night against the Titans. Here are the key match-ups to watch in that game.
T.Y. Hilton vs Adoree Jackson
Over the past 7 games, T.Y. Hilton has been on fire, amassing 48 receptions and 856 yards. He topped 125 yards in 4 of those games and his 155-yard 2-TD romp against the Titans was the game that really got it all rolling.
Despite being perpetually hurt this season and missing practices entirely for a couple weeks, Hilton has somehow managed to put together a stretch of incredible football that has served to underline just how valuable he is to this Colts team. He compared this game to a game 7 and said “You know I ain’t missing that,” in reference to whether he would be able to play this week.
Adoree Jackson had been having a very solid year in pass coverage before he ran afoul of Hilton, and he will undoubtedly have done a lot of film study on the slippery receiver. The question is, will it matter? The Titans will be without CB Logan Ryan who was lost for the season with a broken fibula, which puts even more pressure on Jackson. If this game goes like the first, Hilton is due another big game.
Anthony Walker vs Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry has been on a tear over the past three games. As Chris Shepherd points out in his scouting report, Henry is running more decisively than perhaps he has in his NFL career. He is a big man and can damage teams when he gets rolling. His 99-yard run against the Jaguars is one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen.
Having said all that, he will face a tough challenge against our stiff Colts’ defense. This team has limited backs and been a solid team against the run all season long, and this will be a battle of strengths. The Colts have a solid defensive line and with Anthony Walker’s return, a very good linebacker group. Anthony Walker has been a key part of the team’s run defense, and limiting Derrick Henry’s effectiveness, specifically in terms of getting to the edge, will likely be tasked largely to him.
If the Colts can get a lead early and limit big plays from Henry, they will likely force the Titans to become one dimensional in their efforts, which will allow them to do what they love to do, pin their ears back and get after whichever guy starts under center for the Titans on Sunday.
Marlon Mack vs Titans run defense
The Colts may be without Ryan Kelly on Sunday as he hasn’t practiced this week with a neck injury. While Evan Boehm has been a solid backup, his loss hurts in the running game. The Titans are a stiff run defense anyway, but with the loss of Jurrell Casey to IR, they may not be unbeatable. It will be critical to this match-up to test themselves and see how they can match up against a talented defensive front seven.
Marlon Mack has had a solid year over all, but the Colts would love to see him finish the regular season strong with a big statement performance. Given the offensive line’s injuries, that will mean making decisive reads, hitting the holes he gets, and running hard through contact. Mack has shown at times the ability to do all those things. If he can do that on Sunday night it will give the offense a ton of options and open the playbook up against a Titans defense that has been a reliable unit on the year.
There are many people who think Mack cannot provide the long-term answer at running back for this Colts team. Sunday night is a chance for Mack to prove he is more than he gets credit for.
Pierre Desir vs Corey Davis
The Colts have gotten better and better at the cornerback position as the year has progressed. The young unit has developed and grown, and are playing far better football than they were early in the season. Pierre Desir has perhaps had the best run of them, matching up with some very talented receivers and holding them well in check. DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper both struggled to make much headway against him, and the Colts will want the same performance from him against Davis, who is the Titans’ most dangerous receiver.
Regardless of the quarterback throwing the ball, Davis provides a deep threat that the Titans will need to utilize if they want to keep up with the Colts’ offense, and limiting his production will mean seriously handicapping the Titans offense. If he can knock him off rhythm and throw off the timing on routes, it could give the defensive line enough time to get to the quarterback and force a sack or critical turnover.
Frank Reich vs Mike Vrabel Round 2
Frank Reich is .500 in rematches as a head coach. He lost an ugly game against the Jaguars and won a big one against the Texans. Divisional match-ups between teams tend to be closer than we feel like they should, regardless of the level of play prior to those games. These Coaching staffs have had a chance to see each other and analyze each other’s personnel and tendencies a bit more frequently than others.
That leaves us the question, how will Reich fare in his rematch with Vrabel? The first game was expertly called. The defense was well prepared for the Titans and the Colts offense went off, abusing Adoree Jackson and basically doing whatever they wanted on the way to a major blowout. Vrabel had few answers.
Having said that, the Titans lost their defensive coordinator Dean Pees who was hospitalized during the first half of the last game. That is a kind of adversity few teams have to face, and it no doubt played a major role in the way the defense was called and how the game went. That, hopefully, won’t be the case on Sunday, as the Titans will be fully staffed and ready to go.
What difference will it make to have their coaching staff whole and ready to go? We won’t know until the game is under way. It will be interesting to see how this plan differs from the first go around. Given Hilton’s hot streak, it is tough to see not using him heavily, especially with Ebron still a question mark in concussion protocol. Frank Reich is about to coach his biggest game of the season, and it is time to find out what he’s got.