The biggest game in Week 17 is the de facto play-in game Sunday night between the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts. The winner heads to the playoffs, most likely as the sixth seed and with an outside shot at the AFC South title.
Both teams are red hot. The Titans have won four in a row. The Colts won eight of nine after a 1-5 start. While both teams are 9-6, I think there’s one team that clearly has the advantage in this game: the Indianapolis Colts.
Here are five reasons why.
1. Look at each team in the last four games
The NFL is a week-to-week league, but in the facility, we focus mostly on the last four weeks of film to game plan. In these last four weeks, the Titans were down 19-6 at home to the Josh McCown-led Jets before coming back late to win the game. Next, they beat the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football followed by a win over the New York Giants in a monsoon. For their fourth win in as many weeks they beat Washington, a team starting its fourth-string QB.
The Colts, on the other hand, have beaten two playoff teams — the Cowboys at home and the Texans on the road — in consecutive weeks after laying an egg against the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Last weekend, the Colts had to survive the Giants at home, which made sense after winning two big games in a row and having to end with the Titans. Advantage Colts on the tougher schedule.
2. Andrew Luck will show up
The most important position in all of sports is the quarterback. Marcus Mariota is not expected to play and even if he did, he might not be able to grip the ball very well. So the Colts clearly have the advantage at the quarterback position.
Andrew Luck is 10-0 against the Titans in his career, and he’s dominated those games. In their first matchup this season — a 38-10 rout by the Colts — Luck completed 79 percent of his passes against the Titans, second-highest of the season against them. While 10-0 is a neat number, what matters most in this game is Luck against top-five scoring defenses after Week 5 (Tennessee’s defense ranks second). He’s 11-1 completing 64 percent and 26 touchdowns in these contests, including the postseason. Andrew Luck will show up. Advantage Colts.
3. The battle in the trenches will be key
We know in games of big importance, like a play-in game, the battle in the trenches is extremely important. The Colts have both advantages here.
The Colts’ offensive line is eighth in adjusted rushing and third in sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. They’ve only allowed 17 sacks this season. The Titans’ defensive line is 25th in defending the run, yet they are 11th in rushing defense (DVOA), which means their linebackers are cleaning up for them. The Titans’ sack rate is near the bottom of the NFL. Now, they are missing possibly the best player on the team, four-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey.
On the flip side, the Colts defense has the edge too. Indianapolis’ defensive line is sixth in rushing and its defense is fifth overall against the rush. This Colts defense shut down Zeke Elliott and Saquon Barkley earlier this month, and it hopes to do the same this weekend. This is important because the Titans’ rushing attack led by Derrick Henry, who hasn’t shown much in his career until now, has been good lately. He’s gotten better as the season progressed. In 15 games during the months of December and January, Henry is averaging 5.1 yards a carry on just 14.5 carries a game.
With or without Mariota, the Titans will try rushing the ball. While Henry has been rushing well in general, his offensive line isn’t particularly great at run blocking. They are 17th in adjusted rushing and 15th in yards per rush, which means more than they’re fifth in rushing yards per game. So the Colts should have an advantage in this matchup as well, even if they don’t rush the passer well. The Titans are 31st in adjusted sack rate.
4. The Colts’ pass defense is better than it seems
Looking at passing defense in this contest is interesting. For example, the Colts allow 71 percent of passes to be completed, second-worst in the league. However, when you dig deeper into the stats, you can see this is by design.
The Colts play the highest percentage of zone coverage in the NFL and have forced 16 more checkdowns than any other team. They are allowing opponents to throw short while tackling receivers well before they can turn those into big gains.
5. The Titans could have trouble scoring
The Colts do buckle in the red zone though, 11th in red zone defense. They are going to force the Titans to make plays in the red zone, where they are only 22nd in the NFL.
On the flip side, the Titans defense is legit in the red zone, second-best in the league. That’s helped by being seventh-best on third downs. The Colts offense counters that by being first on third downs. Such a great matchup to watch!
The Titans have one thing on their side: Home-field advantage
If you’re looking for some advantage for the Titans, they’re playing at home this week.
They’re 6-1 and score 23 points a game at home, a full 6.5 points more than on the road. Their defense is only allowing a tad under 17 points and the team is +4 in turnover margin in Nissan Stadium.
The Colts aren’t as good away from the dome. In their last nine games, they have scored 42, 0 and 24 on the road, which is very inconsistent.
The Colts should win this game, but I do think the Titans playing at home is a huge factor here. Still, nothing else points to the Titans winning this game, especially if Blaine Gabbert plays instead of Marcus Mariota. Give me the Colts in this contest.