For the first time in three years, the Indianapolis Colts head into the final game of the season with its playoff destiny in its own hands. Travel to Nashville for a prime time division showdown and leave victorious, and Andrew Luck will have a chance to lead his team into the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Lose and go home.
It is incredible to see a young team come together so quickly after a horrible start. A successful run to the playoffs would make this Colts team the third in history to do so after starting a season 1-5. This will be the biggest stage most of the young players have ever been on in the NFL. It will be the first playoff level game that Frank Reich, Nick Sirianni, and Matt Ebeflus will coach in their respective positions.
If the Colts can do anything close to what they did in Week 11, Indianapolis should come out on top. Marcus Mariota was unable to finish that game and he is expected to miss this one.
Derrick Henry wasn’t carving up defenses earlier this season but he hasn’t faced a run defense as good as the Colts during his recent streak either. The Washington Redskins are 17th, the Jacksonville Jaguars are 18th and the New York Giants are 23rd. The Colts are 8th against the run and just held Saquon Barkley to 43 yards on 21 carries, after they held Ezekiel Elliott to 87 rushing yards in a shutout.
The Titans have the 7th ranked defense in total yards allowed, 6th in passing yards allowed and 14th in rushing yards allowed. They also won’t have their best defensive lineman, as Jurrell Casey has been placed on injured reserve. That clear advantage for the Colts is somewhat neutralized because starting center Ryan Kelly will not play for Indianapolis.
In many respects, this game should be a match-up of strength against strength. The Colts have the 7th most productive offense in the NFL but the Titans have one of the best overall defenses. The Colts run defense is strong and the Titans like to run the ball. They are division rivals who are very familiar with one another. The Colts have an offensive minded head coach in Frank Reich, while the Titans have a defensive minded head coach in Mike Vrabel.
This game has all of the elements that point to an exciting and prime time worthy match-up. Let’s take a look at the keys to a Colts victory.
NO UNFORCED ERRORS
The Colts dominated the Titans earlier in the season and have been trending in the right direction. Tennessee’s most important offensive and defensive players will not be playing in this game. Andrew Luck will be facing off against a backup quarterback. The Colts should be favored.
The biggest reason the Colts have lost winnable games this season is due to self-inflicted wounds. Think back to batted passes for interceptions early in the season, dropped passes that ended drives, and a ridiculous attempted throw away that resulted in an interception that nearly cost them the game against the Giants. These are avoidable mistakes and they are ones that any team in the NFL can take advantage of to turn the tide in a game.
If Colts receivers will catch the damn ball, if Andrew Luck will make smart reads and decisions and avoid the temptation to try to force plays to his favorite receivers, and if Colts ball carriers can make ball security the top priority, the Colts should be in good position to win. If these things don’t happen, the door will be opened for the Titans to get the home crowed going and pull out the win.
SHUT DOWN THE GROUND GAME/MAKE GABBERT THROW TO WIN
Indianapolis has been able to suffocate opponents at the line of scrimmage throughout much of the season. The Colts run defense is predicated on speed and penetration on the defensive line. Penetration clogs running lanes and causes confusion. Speed capitalizes on hesitation and redirection.
The speed of the Colts defense has made it hard for ball carriers to get to the edge. It has tended to limit running backs as receivers because there is very little opportunity for yards after the catch. Tennessee lacks major receiving weapons and will have to rely on Gabbert if the Colts can do their job on early downs and take Henry and Lewis out of the game.
A game that becomes a shootout between Luck and Gabbert favors the Colts heavily.
STAY BALANCED ON OFFENSE
One of the big tendencies for Frank Reich this season has been to abandon the run early if things aren’t going the way he would like. Don’t get me wrong, I like the odds of Andrew Luck wearing down a defense and finding a way to win football games as much as the next person. However, what really make life difficult is a balanced game plan that keeps opponents on their toes.
A heavy use of quick release passes to carve up yards along with up-tempo no huddle pace to keep the defense sucking wind is best. Quick release passes followed by body blows with inside zone runs and wham concepts will soften things up nicely. Well-timed shots down the field can capitalize once defenders start taking their first step towards the line of scrimmage.
Game situation certainly has an impact on play calling but the offense needs to try to set the tone early and not let up. When the Colts have been able to remain balanced, they have had dominant offensive football games. When the run is abandoned early on, it can be tough sledding.
Matt Eberflus has drawn up some outstanding blitzes in big games. When the Colts have been able to hit opposing quarterbacks with regularity, things tend to snowball. The defense is high energy and feeds off of success. If the Colts can push their advantage on the interior of the offensive line by using Denico Autry and Margus Hunt in the trenches along with well-timed blitzes by Darius Leonard or Anthony Walker, they can make life exceedingly difficult for Gabbert.
A rushed and bruised Gabbert will make mistakes. The team who makes the most mistakes will lose.
CONTROL FIELD POSITION/DON’T BLOW SCORING OPPORTUNITIES
The more the Colts are able to pin the Titans deep in their own territory, the harder it will be for Tennessee to get in position to score. This is true for all opponents but given that the Titans have a lot to overcome offensively, it will be particularly helpful.
Along with this philosophy is scoring at every opportunity. When the ball is within field goal range, the Colts need to be sure that they don’t throw away chances. There is a far greater likelihood that the Titans will win if they can keep the Colts from scoring on drives where they otherwise should. If the Titans win, it will probably be a low scoring game.
With that in mind, be aggressive but be smart. Have faith in your offense and defense but don’t blindly have faith in one side or the other. This is one of those games that, if the Colts lose, you could easily look back at one drive that should have yielded points but was a turnover on downs. Don’t let that happen. Not in this one.