8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Colts -3.5, Over/Under: 43.5
The 2018 NFL Regular Season comes to it’s conclusion with a bonafide play-in game as the Indianapolis Colts face off against the Tennessee Titans from Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, with the victor guaranteed a playoff birth. Rebuilding can be a long, arduous process, but the Colts (9-6, 2nd in AFC South) have successfully done so in relatively short order this season, with an opportunity to not only return to the Postseason for the first time since 2014, but also have an outside chance to steal an AFC South Championship. General Manager Chris Ballard and Head Coach Frank Reich have done a tremendous job in restocking a team that was dangerously thin in a number of areas, none more so than in the trenches. However, Indianapolis has reloaded long the Offensive Line, investing a slew of First Round Picks over the past few years (particularly Rookie Guard Quenton Nelson), while also adding some underrated pieces via Free Agency (Tight End Eric Ebron). Nelson, the Sixth Overall Pick in the NFL Draft, has led a retooled Line that has yielded just Seventeen Sacks thus far, while improving a Running Game from one of the league’s worst to one of respectability (104.0 Y/G, 4.2 Y/C). Ebron, has revitalized his career with the Colts, reeling in a team-best Twelve Touchdowns to go along with 690 Yards on Sixty-Two Receptions. Furthermore, Reich’s playcalling and continued development of these players has made many in Indianapolis forget the fact that he was far from the franchise’s first choice to be their new Head Coach. The former Quarterback has rebuilt the Offense into one of the league’s more potent units, ranking Seventh in both Points Scored (26.7 P/G) and Total Yards (391.3 Y/G), while sitting atop the NFL in Third Down Percentage (49.3%).
Of course, none of that really matters without the healthy return of one Andrew Luck (67.2%, 4,308 YDS, 6.73 NY/A, 36 TD, 14 INT, 70.7 QBR), who for all intents and purposes sealed the Comeback Player of the Year Award around midseason. After missing the entirety of the 2017 Campaign due to a lingering shoulder injury, the former No. One Overall Pick has returned with a vengeance, putting together an MVP caliber season for the Colts. It’s a wonder what a solid Offensive Line coupled with young playmakers and a quality playcaller can do for a Quarterback, for Luck has posted career-bests in a slew of categories, including Completions (406), Completion Percentage (67.2%), Interception Percentage (2.3%), Passer Rating (98.0), QBR (70.7), and Sack Percentage (2.7%). That last number is of the utmost significance, for not only is it a personal best for the 29-Year Old, but also the lowest such figure in the league. And consider this: the Seventeen Sacks that he’s suffered rank as the second-fewest in his career (though the fifteen he took in 2015 came in just seven games), and have thus come in a season in which he is on pace to attempt more passes than he has in any other term. And this is what happens when this guy receives proper Pass Protection: Luck set an NFL Record throwing at least Three Touchdowns in eight consecutive contests.
After starting the season 1-5, the Colts have dug themselves out of despair to reach the precipice of the Playoffs, and one would have to love their chances of doing so against their division neighbors for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the Titans are banged up (which we’ll get into shortly), but secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Luck has absolutely OWNED them over his career. The Three-Time Pro-Bowler is 10-0 all-time against Tennessee, averaging 265.0 Yards with Eighteen Touchdowns in comparison to Eight Interceptions. When these teams met earlier in the season, Indianapolis thrashed them in a 38-10 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium that was never close. The hosts raced out to 24-0 lead late in the First Half, before ending the day with 397 Total Yards, with Luck completing a stellar 23-of-29 Passes for 297 Yards and Three Touchdowns, two of which went to T.Y. Hilton (74 REC, 1,209 YDS, 16.3 Y/R, 6 TD), who hauled in all nine of his targets for 155 Yards. Speaking of Hilton, he and a number of other important cogs in the Offense are dealing with some injuries, though all are expected to compete in tonight’s contest, with the speedy Receiver dealing with a sprained ankle, the aforementioned Ebron exiting the previous outing with a Concussion, and Starting Center Ryan Kelly suffering the effects of a stinger in his neck throughout the week. At present time, all of these players are listed as Questionable for this tilt with the Titans.
Meanwhile, the Titans (9-6, 3rd in AFC South) too have an opportunity to return to the Playoffs, which would make it back-to-back appearances for a team that had spent the previous eight years without so much as sniffing the Postseason. Tennessee was an unexpected participant last season, and would certainly be branded as such once again, for Mike Vrabel’s charges have been habitually overlooked throughout his first season in charge. Say what you want about this team, but they’re a solid, physically tough group that rarely beats themselves. While they’re far from explosive, they grind away at opponents, all the while playing excellent defense. Just look at the numbers folks; Tennessee is averaging just 19.5 Points per Game (26th Overall), but has only yielded a scant 18.0 Points (2nd Overall), with seven of their games having been decided by seven points or fewer. That margin of victory is usually indicative of an 8-8 or 7-9 outfit, and the fact that they have an opportunity to earn ten wins is quite an accomplishment for Vrabel and Co. With that said, on the surface it appears that this team is hitting their stride at the right time, winning four consecutive contests, and six of their last eight overall, with their Defense really buckling down, permitting opponents just 11.8 Points on 271.8 Total Yards and forcing Six Turnovers. Granted, those wins came against some fairly poor teams, with the Jets, Jaguars, Giants, and Redskins owning a cumulative 21-39 record, or in other words a .350 Win Percentage. Amazingly, three out of those four opponents were fielding Backup Quarterbacks, including last weekend’s opponent, Washington, who were on their fourth Starter of the season in the form of Josh Johnson. Talk about good fortune!
Unfortunately, that won’t be the case tonight, for as we’ve discussed earlier, Andrew Luck has torched the Titans throughout his career, and he is HEALTHY. Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees did little to slow him down in their previous meeting this season, failing to register a single Sack or Takeaway in the 10-38 debacle, though on the whole of the term, the Titans have been one of the best Defensive Teams in the league. Tennessee has yielded 326.6 Total Yards per Game (7th Overall), including 212.9 Yards against the Pass (6th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (6th Overall), and another 113.7 Yards versus the Run (14th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (12th Overall), while forcing Fifteen Turnovers (26th Overall) and logging Thirty-Eight Sacks (14th Overall). Where this unit has really been tough is where it counts the most: on Third Down and in the Red Zone. The Titans have been excellent at getting their counterparts off the field, permitting just 36.5% of opponents’ Third Downs to be converted (7th Overall), and have been even better at keeping them out of the End Zone, allowing a Touchdown on just 42.5% of the time (2nd Overall). It will be interesting to see if they can keep their defensive dominance going without a number of key contributors that have landed on Injured Reserve, particularly Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman Jurell Casey (62 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 7.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR) and Cornerback Logan Ryan (76 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 4.0 SK, 8 PD), the former who suffered a Strained MCL and the latter a broken Left Fibula.
Speaking of injuries, the biggest one is the state of Marcus Mariota’s throwing shoulder/arm, which has suffered the ill-effects of a stinger in last weekend’s 25-16 victory over the Redskins. Mariota (68.9%, 2,528 YDS, 6.13 NY/A, 11 TD, 8 INT, 53.1) has dealt with lingering ailments throughout the season, which has seriously stunted his development within new Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur’s scheme. Needless to say, this Offense has not taken off as expected, with the Passing Game being a major culprit to their struggles, ranking Thirty-First Overall in Passing Attempts (408), Twenty-Ninth in both Passing Yards (206.0 Y/G) and Passing Touchdowns (15), and Twenty-First in Net Yards per Attempt (6.18). The former Heisman and No. Two Overall Pick has left a lot to be desired when operating out of the Pocket, averaging a career-low 6.13 Net Yards per Attempt, with just Eleven Touchdowns in comparison to Eight Interceptions. Injuries along the Offensive Line have certainly played a role in his struggles, particularly in the fact that he’s been sacked a whopping forty-two times this season (11.3%!!!), or in other words fifteen more times than in the previous term. However, given his skills as a mobile Quarterback, one has to wonder if he is in fact a proper fit for this Offense, with many of his Sacks being a product of simply holding onto the football too long. This is a case in which the Titans need to rely upon their Running Game which they have rediscovered over the second half of the year, rushing for 146.9 Yards per Game since the Bye Week. Fellow Heisman-winner Derrick Henry (199 CAR, 966 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 12 TD) has really stepped up his play of late, rushing for 492 Yards (6.93 Y/C) and Seven Touchdowns over the last three outings alone, including a career-high 238 Yards against the Jaguars three weeks ago.