The last time Tennessee Titans beat Indianapolis, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota wasn’t even enrolled at the University of Oregon yet, he was still a senior at Saint Luis School in Honolulu. For the past six seasons, the Titans have been tormented by their AFC South rival, stuck as the division’s little brother since the height of the Peyton Manning era.
But the tide may be turning towards the two-tone blue’s favor and away from the division’s long-time chieftain, now relegated to finding relevance in perhaps the NFL’s must putrid division.
The Houston Texans aside — this week’s matchup between the Colts and Titans could be the official changing of the guard for dominance in the AFC South for seasons to come. It’s clear that the Titans (5-5) are at least trending in the right direction under the guidance of new general manager Jon Robinson. While the Colts, often the subject of major front office infighting, are desperately searching for answers to salvage the prime of Andrew Luck’s career.
Tennessee at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Indianapolis -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Titans’ Red Hot Offense
This is as weird of a sentence to type as it is for you to read, I’m sure — but, the Tennessee Titans have the best offense in the NFL right now. Pick yourself up off the floor. The Titans have averaged 39 points per game since losing to the Colts three weeks ago, a franchise first, and have averaged more than 33 points in their last six games.
While it’s easy to look at the addition of DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, as the reason for the somewhat unexpected offensive success, let’s not overlook the quarterback’s role in this. In his last six games, Marcus Mariota has been splendid, bucking the narrative of “work in progress,” and throttling towards “franchise quarterback,” completing 68 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
2. Protecting the Football
The last time these two teams faced off was in Week 7 in Nashville, and neither Andrew Luck or Mariota — two young quarterbacks who have both struggled with turnovers — threw an interception. Luck was brilliant, going 27-of-39 for more than 350 passing yards and three TDs. Mariota’s numbers weren't as gaudy (22-of-37, 232 yards, 2 TD) but good enough to keep the Titans in the lead for much of the contest. But Mariota still had trouble hanging on to the football, fumbling twice, including the game-icing strip sack and fumble recovery for a touchdown with 1:47 to play. For as well as Mariota has thrown the ball in recent weeks, his inability to keep a firm grasp on it when he’s under pressure or on the run is still an issue, as he has fumbled 10 times already this season.
3. Playoff Atmosphere
Let’s not get it twisted. Neither one of these teams is likely to compete for the Lombardi Trophy this season. Of the combined wins between the two teams (nine), zero have come against teams that had winning records at the time, and only two have come against teams that currently have winning records — both teams the Titans beat (Lions, Dolphins).
Thanks to what has become a largely mediocre NFL product, only highlighted by the even more subpar AFC South, this week’s matchup is extremely important for both teams’ playoff hopes. An Indianapolis win and the Colts will have swept the Titans for the sixth consecutive season and put Tennessee’s playoff hopes in great despair, while an Indianapolis loss essentially knocks the Colts out of the playoff picture. Both teams have two remaining divisional games after this week’s contest, and both still have road trips to Houston to face the first-place Texans, who are undefeated at home, before the season ends.
The winner of this matchup keeps hope alive for a playoff berth, while the other can start planning for 2017.
Tennessee’s offense has been the best in the NFL for the last several weeks and there is no reason to think that the Titans will slow down against such a downtrodden Indianapolis defense that allows more than 400 yards a game. The wild card in this game is the Colts’ offense. Which one shows up? Is it the same offense that put up 31 and 34 points against the Packers and Titans, respectively, or the offense that only managed 14 against the Chiefs?
Prediction: Titans 28, Colts 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.