NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The final game of the season for the Tennessee Titans will be a rematch against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. The game has been flexed to Sunday night (8:20 ET, NBC) where the winner advances to the playoffs and possibly sets themselves up for an AFC South division title (pending the Houston Texans‘ result in Week 17).
It will be imperative for Tennessee to keep the ball out of Luck’s hands by dominating the time of possession battle. A ball-control offense is the best defense against the Colts. Titans running back Derrick Henry is running the ball with more authority and wearing down opposing defenses as his carries increase.
Having to possibly play without quarterback Marcus Mariota after he was knocked out of last week’s game because of a stinger could give Henry more responsibility. The Titans are 5-0 when Henry carries the ball 15 or more times.
“I feel like once I’m in the flow, I’m seeing everything. I’m finishing runs and being able to get north and south and have momentum. [And when] the offensive line is clicking, too,” Henry said.
Luck is back to his old ways despite missing 2017 with a shoulder injury. The seventh-year QB is having one of the best seasons of his career thanks in large part to coach Frank Reich. Luck has 4,308 passing yards this season to go along with 36 touchdown passes.
Luck carved up the Titans for 297 passing yards and three touchdown passes the last time the two teams played in Week 11. He completed 79.3 percent of his passes, averaging 10.24 yards per pass. The Colts controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for over 31 minutes.
The Titans can’t allow Indianapolis to put drives together and they must force the Colts’ offense to get anxious to make big plays — limited opportunities on the field will help eliminate long drives by Reich’s unit.
After a rough start, the Titans’ pass defense has settled down, giving up only 66 explosive plays (15 or more yards rushing and 20 or more passing) this season, ranking them among the top 10 in the league. The lack of big plays allowed by the Titans’ defense isn’t by accident.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees says he has done extensive research to calculate the amount of times a team scores on his defense without the help of a big play or penalty.
“It usually comes down to less than five drives per year where a team scores on you without a big play or penalty,” Pees said. “I’ve done a study every year. If you don’t give up a penalty or a big play, it’s really hard for a team to score on you. That’s been an emphasis from the very first meeting I had with these guys. I gave them that stat.”
Eliminating the big plays won’t be easy against Indianapolis, a team that is well equipped to generate big plays. Colts wideout T.Y. Hilton is one of the most explosive players in the NFL. Hilton has 26 receptions of 20 yards or more, including five that have gone for over 40 yards.
The speedy deep threat was the primary weapon Indianapolis used when it beat the Titans earlier this season. Hilton had nine receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Tennessee primarily used cornerback Adoree Jackson to cover Hilton. They’ll likely give Jackson a chance to redeem himself on Sunday.
It will be a win-and-in deal for the Titans in the prime-time matchup with the Colts. Luck has sent Tennessee home with a loss in 10 consecutive games.
Coach Mike Vrabel says the Titans have basically played playoff games the past four weeks. Tennessee had to win all of their games down the stretch to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Safety Kevin Byard agrees with Vrabel’s suggestion that the Titans have responded with a heightened sense of urgency.
“Andrew Luck has beat us something like 10 straight games,” he said. “We have to do whatever it takes to win. I feel like the playoffs started for us a while back. It’s a survive-and-advance mentality, and we’re surviving now.”