Think back six years ago. In 2011, the Tennessee Titans appeared to be a team on the rise after finishing 9-7 and seemingly finding a new identity in the post-Jeff Fisher era with first-year head coach Mike Munchak and then-rookie quarterback Jake Locker leading the way.
Meanwhile, fellow AFC South rival Indianapolis was entering its own new era following a career-threatening neck injury to franchise quarterback Peyton Manning that resulted in the Colts turning to Curtis Painter under center and finishing 2-14 in what turned out to be head coach Jim Caldwell’s last season. Indianapolis, armed with the first pick in the 2012 draft, would not only turn the reigns over to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, but a new coaching staff and front office as well.
Fast-forward to the present and the Titans (2-3) have another promising, yet oft-injured young quarterback in Marcus Mariota, a new head coach in Mike Mularkey, and are struggling to meet preseason expectations that had this team as a legitimate playoff contender. For the Colts (2-3), injuries to Luck have not only put his career on hold (and somewhat in question), but also have contributed to another reshuffling in the front office and put head coach Chuck Pagano on the hot seat, as the team is trying to compete with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
The paths’ of these two teams cross again, this time in Nashville under the “Monday Night Football” spotlight in what is a must-win for both teams if they want to keep pace in the division. For Tennessee it’s also another chance to pick up its first won over Indianapolis in nearly six years.
Indianapolis at Tennessee
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Titans -8
Three Things to Watch
1. Mariota returns
And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Mariota missed last week’s 16-10 loss in Miami with a hamstring injury, and although he is listed as questionable, he is expected to start tonight, giving the Titans’ offense a much needed jolt of energy.
But the question remains, which Mariota are the Titans getting? Is it the Mariota that looked completely overwhelmed in a 43-point loss to the Texans two weeks ago, posting a 56 QB rating and throwing two interceptions? Or is it the Mariota that picked apart Seattle’s vaunted Legion of Boom en route to a 33-27 win in Nashville less than a month ago?
Whichever version of Mariota that shows up it may not make much of a difference if the Titans’ running game continues to disappoint. Last week in Miami, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for 68 rushing yards on 18 carries. Even against a middle-of-the-road Colts rush defense, that won’t cut it. Tonight will be a golden opportunity for Tennessee to find its offensive stride against a division opponent and a defense that gives up more points than any other team (31.8 ppg) in the NFL.
2. Return of the Mack
It’s likely that you had never heard of Indianapolis rookie running back Marlon Mack until last week. And why would you have? A fourth-round pick from South Florida, a school that hails from the American Athletic Conference (AAC), Mack was not a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school and he’s always been knocked for his size (6-0, 210). Well the rest of the NFL is getting to know about Mack quickly following last week’s performance where he rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in the Colts’ overtime win over the 49ers.
While Mack still find himself behind Frank Gore and Robert Turbin on the depth chart, he has already shown head coach Chuck Pagano that he’s worthy of more touches. Mack’s explosiveness and playmaking ability has given Indianapolis’ offense a new element. While he’s still figuring out the nuances of running between the tackles, Mackh has the speed to break off big gains on the outside and do things in the open field. With starting guard Jack Mewhort going on injured reserve this week, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is going to have to find a way to get Mack the ball in the flat or as a receiver out of the backfield to utilize his game-breaking speed. Whatever the carry distribution ends up being between Gore, Turbin and Mack, expect to see plenty of the rookie tonight.
3. The streak
The date was Oct. 30 2011. Occupy Wall Street was spreading from Manhattan to Main Street. The NBA was in the midst of another lockout. Adele had everyone thinking about calling their ex as “Someone Like You” was atop the Billboard Hot 100 for a third consecutive week. And the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts, 27-10, at LP Field in Nashville.
Time moves on. Things change. Things stay the same. Occupy fizzled out. The NBA is as healthy as ever. Adele still has us catching feelings. LP Field is now Nissan Stadium. Yet the Titans haven’t beaten the Colts since that game nearly six years ago now, a stretch that sits at 11 straight games entering tonight.
This streak, which represents an NFL record for longest active losing streak between two teams, has been baffling at times, but it also speaks to Indianapolis’ dominance of its division foe. The Colts have won 16 of the last 17 meetings with the Titans, a stretch that goes back almost a decade (to Dec. 2008). So while both teams come into tonight with the same 2-3 record, it’s the Titans that have far more to lose than the Colts do.
No one is surprised to see Indianapolis struggle with Andrew Luck not in the lineup. But the Titans were supposed to be the team to challenge the Texans for the top spot in the AFC South and maybe take that next step by winning at least one playoff game. Instead, the Titans are faced with a scenario in which a loss would not only extend their stretch of misery against the Colts, but also deliver a major blow to their postseason hopes.
Tonight is the perfect time for the Titans to come out of their funk. The stench of getting whipped in Houston, followed by the sloppiness in Miami surely has this team ready to take out their frustrations on a fledgling Colts squad whose only two wins have come at the hands of two winless teams. Look for Marcus Mariota and company to come out hot and put an end to one dubious streak in hopes of laying the foundations for one of their own – a winning streak that will get them back in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Prediction: Titans 31, Colts 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Jacoby Brissett photo courtesy of Getty Images)