1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Colts -3.5, Over/Under: 51
For the second time in three weeks division rivals lock horns, as the Indianapolis Colts play host to the Tennessee Titans from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, with both sides coming off huge overtime victories. Since starting the campaign at 5-0, the Titans (7-3, 2nd in AFC South) have come back down to Earth a bit, dropping three out of five contests which has erased their tenuous grip on the division. Tennessee has developed a habit of playing to the level of their competition in 2020, which depending on the opponent could prove either inspiring or troubling; seven of their ten outings have been decided by one possession, owning a 6-1 record in such affairs. They’ve managed to take down the likes of the Buffalo Bills (42-16) and Baltimore Ravens (30-24), while pushing the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers to the brink (27-24), but have also had to sweat out wins over struggling sides such as the Denver Broncos (16-14), and Jacksonville Jaguars (33-30), while getting embarrassed by the Cincinnati Bengals (31-20). Now they’re faced with the task of avenging a previous loss to the Colts with huge Playoff implications on the line; if Mike Vrabel’s charges do indeed fall today then Indianapolis will hold the tiebreaker within the division, which means that they will have to hit the road in the Postseason and leave their chances to fate as a Wild Card. With that said, they’ve become acquainted with that role in recent times, having entered the Playoffs with that distinction in two of the last three years, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship Game last January.
While you’ll be hard-pressed to find many people that would proclaim the Titans to be among the NFL’s elite, they’ve proven on a number of occasions that on their day they can trade blows with any team in the league. What makes them so dangerous is their ability to completely control a contest via their punishing run game led by reigning Rushing Champion, Derrick Henry (229 CAR, 1,079 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 9 TD). A year after leading the league in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540), and touchdowns (16), the 26-year old signed a four-year/$50 million contract to remain in Nashville, with the faithful in Music City happy to see him picking up where he left off, pacing the NFL once again in both rushing attempts (229) and yards (1,079). When you have a ground game like this, it really makes everything else easier; Tennessee has had little problems moving the chains, converting an efficient 44.5% of their third downs (10th Overall), while frequently breaching the end zone, scoring a touchdown on 71.8% of their trips into the red zone (6th Overall). Furthermore, they rarely beat themselves, committing the fewest turnovers in the league (5), with veteran Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill (65.4%, 2,387 YDS, 6.98 NY/A, 22 TD, 4 INT, 76.2 QBR), who also signed a long-term deal in the Offseason to remain with the franchise (four-year/$118 million), taking full advantage of the threat posed by his Backfield. The Titans really took off last year once the 32-year old took over the starting role, and while the vertical passing game hasn’t been quite as explosive as it was in 2019, he’s certainly done his part when called upon; Tannehill’s QBR (76.2) is a career-high, with his interception (1.3%) and sack (4.3%) rates representing career-lows, all the while he leads the league in both game-winning drives (4) and fourth quarter comebacks (3). Under the guidance of Offensive Coordinator, Arthur Smith, this unit continues to grow with a young Receiving Corps featuring the likes of A.J. Brown (36 REC, 540 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 7 TD), Corey Davis (39 REC, 549 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 3 TD), and Jonnu Smith (30 REC, 338 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 7 TD) further developing with each passing week. However, the Defense isn’t quite there yet for a variety reasons. Yes, they’re physical and they play with a chip on their shoulder, but they’ve struggled immensely to apply pressure on opposing Quarterbacks, which has put this unit in peril on numerous occasions. The Titans have yielded 267.4 passing yards per game (27th Overall) and twenty-one touchdowns through the air (27th Overall), with their opponents attempting the second-most passes in the league (39.5). With just twelve sacks thus far (30th Overall), they’ve struggled to get off the field on third down where they’ve permitted the highest success rate in the NFL (54.0%), while not proving much better within the red zone, with teams scoring a touchdown 69.2% of the time (25th Overall). This is a case of players not meeting expectations, with nobody really providing much of a push into opposing Backfields; longtime Pro-Bowl Tackle, Jurrell Casey was released in the Offseason, while former Pro-Bowler and No. One Overall Pick, Jadeveon Clowney (19 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 1 FF, 4 PD), who was signed shortly before the season began, mustered just eleven pressures, five hurries, and ZERO sacks in eight games before landing on Injured Reserve with a knee injury. Furthermore, 2018 Second Round Pick, Harold Landry (47 TKL, 7 TFL, 12 BH, 3.5 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD), has struggled to build upon his career-high of nine sacks from last year, with 2016 Sack Leader, Vic Beasley (3 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF), outright cut after appearing in just five games. Fortunately, this unit has been able to force turnovers, with fifteen on the year (7th Overall), but when they can’t it can be really tough to watch, which was precisely the case when they met the Colts just two weeks ago; Tennessee relinquished 430 total yards in a 34-17 loss, in which the visitors outscored them 24-0 after falling behind 17-10 late in the First Half. Philip Rivers carved them up on 29-of-39 passing for 308 yards and a touchdown, taking one sack and was hit just twice.
When we last saw the Titans, they were able to bounce back from that defeat with a crucial victory on the road at the Baltimore Ravens, rallying back to edge them 30-24 in overtime. Following a nine-play, 79-yard drive ending with a short touchdown toss from Tannehill to Smith on their opening drive, the visitors would eventually fall behind 21-10 midway through the third quarter. After Stephen Gostkowski drilled his second 40-yard field goal of the day, Amani Hooker (30 TKL, 3 INT, 6 PD) picked off Lamar Jackson at midfield, setting up another Gostkowski field goal to cut the deficit to 21-16. From there, Tannehill put together a ten-play, 90-yard drive culminating with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Brown, who was pushed into the end zone by his own teammates to retake the lead. Baltimore would push the affair to overtime with a field goal of their own, but the extra period would belong to Tennessee, with none other than Henry capping off a 73-yard drive with a 29-yard walk-off touchdown run to see off the Ravens for the second time in this calendar year. In arguably their most impressive all-around performance of the campaign, Vrabel’s troops hung 423 total yards on their opponent, with 173 of that figure coming on thirty-four carries, 133 of which belonging to Henry. Davis reeled in five receptions for 113 yards, his third 100-yard game in four outings, while the Defense contained the reigning MVP, who completed 17-of-29 passes for just 186 yards, a touchdown and that aforementioned interception, while rushing for fifty-one yards on thirteen attempts. It was indeed a welcome sign for a unit that has seriously struggled at times this year, though their twenty-one first downs, 306 total yards, and 177 passing yards allowed were all season lows.
Meanwhile, after missing the Playoffs last season the Colts (7-3, 1st in AFC South) are making a push to win their second division title in three years. Of course, this campaign has been all about the impact of veteran Quarterback, Philip Rivers (68.5%, 2,683 YDS, 7.35 NY/A, 14 TD, 8 INT, 64.7 QBR), who was signed as a Free Agent during the Offseason, and the continued evolution of a young Defense, that has emerged as one of the most formidable units in the league. General Manager, Chris Ballard, and Head Coach, Frank Reich, have done a tremendous job of drafting and developing the talent on their roster, with so many young homegrown players making waves in 2020. Winners of three out of four games following their Bye Week, Indianapolis has quietly inserted themselves as powerbrokers within the AFC Playoff Picture, and with a win tonight would essentially own a two-game lead over the Titans on the strength of the head-to-head tiebreaker, courtesy of that aforementioned 34-17 victory at Nissan Stadium back on November 12th. As we touched upon earlier, Indy really got things going in the second half of that affair, shutting out the home side over the final thirty minutes of action, with their Defense returning a blocked punt for a score, along with forcing a turnover on downs and a missed field goal.
In many ways, the Colts have been the exact opposite of their opponent tonight; whereas the Titans have been ruthlessly efficient offensively thanks to their ground game, though oftentimes undermined due to their weaknesses on Defense, Reich’s charges have struggled to stay on the field when in possession, though bolstered by a Defense that has been a nightmare for opponents. Starting on Offense, Indianapolis has to work VERY hard to be successful, even with the 39-year old Rivers lining up under Center. Reich has made it a point to be balanced and run the football so that the veteran (and often turnover-prone) gunslinger won’t feel compelled to stray from within the structure of the scheme. However, simply rushing the football doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, which is something this group has found out the hard way; they’ve averaged 29.0 carries per game thus far (11th Overall), but have in turn logged an underwhelming 3.8 yards per carry (29th Overall), parlaying to a middling 109.2 yards per contest (19th Overall). A season-ending injury to Tailback, Marlon Mack, set them back early, and his rookie understudy, Jonathan Taylor (135 CAR, 518 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 4 TD), has struggled to find much space, averaging just 51.8 yards per game. Without the benefit of the run to keep Defenses honest, it’s been particularly difficult to keep the chains moving and more importantly, breach the end zone; Indy has converted a dismal 37.5% of their third downs (28th Overall), while scoring a touchdown on an uninspiring 55.3% of their trips into the red zone (25th Overall). To his credit, Rivers has done the best that he can, though he oftentimes looks to be fighting his new role as a Game Manager, which isn’t really in his nature. After sixteen years with the Chargers, he’s benefitted from some of the best protection of his career, suffering just nine sacks (2.5%) thus far, while exhibiting some of the best decision-making we’ve seen from in years, even though his arm strength has clearly waned. With that said, it certainly appears that he’s grown more comfortable with his new supporting cast, completing 66.7% of his attempts for 1,456 yards, ten touchdowns and three interceptions over the past five games, a period in which he’s led the Colts to a 4-1 record. If he can continue to refrain from making the questionable mistakes from his latter years with the Chargers, and some of these younger weapons can further grow into their roles, particularly rookie Receiver, Michael Pittman Jr. (24 REC, 302 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 1 TD), who has posted fourteen receptions for 223 yards and a score over the last three games, then the Colts will become far more balanced as an overall team. Fortunately, the Defense has and will likely continue to give them every opportunity to grow, for they’ve been one of the true elite units in the league this season. Reich will take solace that this group will keep his side in just about every game, ranking in the Top-Five in a slew of categories including points allowed (20.8), total yards allowed (298.1), takeaways (17), first downs allowed (189), passing yards allowed (208.9), rushing yards allowed (89.2), and interceptions (12). This is where the aforementioned Ballard has really earned his plaudits, for he’s gradually upgraded this ide of the football in all manner of ways; Pro-Bowl Linebacker, Darius Leonard (66 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), alongside Defensive Backs, Kenny Moore (43 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 7 PD, 1 TD), Julian Blackmon (26 TKL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 6 PD), and Rock Ya-Sin (31 TKL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 5 PD), were all recent draft picks, while veterans such as Edge-Rushers, Justin Houston (14 TKL, 5 TFL, 8 QBH, 4.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 SFY) and Denico Autry (24 TKL, 7 TFL, 7 QBH, 6.0 SK), and Cornerback, Xavier Rhodes (22 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD, 1 TD), have flourished after falling out of favor with their previous teams. However, the biggest addition was via trade, as Ballard acquired Pro-Bowl Defensive Lineman, DeForest Buckner (41 TKL, 4 TFL, 16 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 SFY) in a draft day deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Simply put, he’s been a MONSTER in the trenches, hitting the Quarterback SIXTEEN times in ten games, which is already more than he did in the previous two seasons combined (11).
When we last saw the Colts, they won their third game in four tries as they outlasted the Green Bay Packers in a spirited 34-31 affair from Lucas Oil Stadium. With Green Bay exploding for twenty-one points in the Second Quarter, the hosts found themselves trailing 28-14 at Halftime. However, the Defense stepped up in a major way following intermission, relegating the Packers to just three points the rest of the way, while Rodrigo Blankenship drilled four field goals, including the eventual game-winner in Overtime. Of course, that 39-yard kick was set up by a crucial fumble recovery on the opening drive of the extra period; Aaron Rodgers completed a short pass out left to Marquez Valdez-Scantling, with the ball punched out by the aforementioned Blackmon, and recovered by Buckner. At Green Bay’s 30-yard line, Reich called three straight runs before Blankenship sealed the deal. In the end, the Defense held their own against Rodgers, forcing four turnovers on the day, while the Offense enjoyed one of their best days on the ground, rushing for 140 yards, ninety of which were attributed to Taylor, which was a career-high for the Second Round Pick. Meanwhile, Rivers looked to revel in getting into a shootout with the two-time MVP, completing 24-of-36 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. However, keep an eye on the venerable signal-caller in tonight’s game, for he’s been slowed in practice due to a toe injury picked up in this affair, which will likely effect the little mobility that he has left at this stage of his career.