It's a short work week for the AFC South's two best teams, as the Indianapolis Colts (5-3) travel south on I-65 to Nashville to take on the division-leading Tennessee Titans (6-2) on "Thursday Night Football."
The Colts are one game back of Tennessee in the division after dropping Sunday's home game to Baltimore, 24-10. The loss proved just how slim the margin of error is for the Colts offense, a unit that's lacked any sort of excitement with Philip Rivers running the show. Indy is now in the midst of the toughest part of their schedule — a home game against Green Bay breaks up two games against these Titans. A win on Tuesday would pull the Colts even with Tennessee atop the AFC South.
The Titans snapped their two-game skid against the Bears on Sunday, and in doing so took sole possession of first place in the AFC South. The much-maligned Tennessee defense quieted the critics, at least for one week, as they finally showed up and made a positive impact. Granted, it was against Nick Foles and a feeble Chicago offense, but we're taking baby steps here. The Titans were able to sack Foles three times and forced two Chicago turnovers en route to the win. Another win on Thursday would give the Titans some much-appreciated cushion in the division.
Thursday Night Football: Indianapolis at Tennessee
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 12 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Titans -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. No margin for error for Philip Rivers
For the Colts to have any shot at the AFC South crown, their offense has to get in line with their defense — and fast. The problem is, outside of their O-line, the Indianapolis offense is just not that talented — not without Marlon Mack, T.Y. Hilton, and Jack Doyle. Mack is out for the year, Hilton is questionable for Thursday (and hasn't been effective when healthy), and Doyle is likely out after suffering a concussion on Sunday. That leaves the 38-year old Rivers surrounded by a bunch of young and unproven skill position players with no room for error.
That tightrope was on display against Baltimore as the Ravens scored 14 of their 24 points off two Colts turnovers, including a 65-yard scoop and score after rookie running back Jonathon Taylor's first-half fumble.
That's been the story of the Colts offense all season long — getting in their own way — which is especially true for Rivers. Four times this season, Indy has turned the ball over twice in a game. Six of those eight turnovers were interceptions thrown by Rivers. Four of those picks resulted in points for the opposing team. The Colts are 1-3 in those games, and Rivers' passer rating is a measly 79.3. Coincidence? Absolutely not. In the three games that the Colts didn't turn the ball over, they're 3-0 with a scoring margin of plus-57. Rivers in those games? Five touchdown passes and a 112.0 quarterback rating.
On Thursday, Rivers protecting the football will be of paramount importance. For all of the Titans' defensive flaws, they are one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers. They rank tied for third in the league in takeaways (14) and tied for second with nine interceptions. Tennessee forced two Bears turnovers on Sunday, including a 63-yard scoop and score of their own by newly acquired Desmond King.
2. Titans’ putting the "D" in third down
The biggest knock against the Titans is their third-down defense. Tennessee's defense is the worst unit in the NFL when it comes to stopping third-down conversions. Opposing teams are moving the chains at a 55.4 percent clip against them. The Titans have allowed 62 third downs this season; that's ten more conversions than any other team that has only played eight games.
During their two-game losing streak, the Titans were especially bad at forcing teams into fourth down situations. Against Cincinnati, the Bengals converted 10 of 15 third-down attempts, and the Steelers went 13-for-18 in their road win two weeks ago.
The Titans' struggles on third down start with their lack of pass rush. The Tennessee pass rush is a lot like Santa Claus — it doesn't exist. They blitz on a fair amount of dropbacks (26.9 percent), but the Titans hardly ever get to opposing quarterbacks. They rank 28th in sacks (10), 30th in sack rate (3.0 percent), and dead last in hurry rate (5.2 percent). Harold Landry (2.5) and Jeffery Simmons (2.0) are the only Titans that have multiple sacks this season.
This pass rush ineptitude was never more evident than it was two weeks ago against Joe Burrow and Cincinnati. The Titans brought the blitz 17 times against a Cincy offensive line that was, quite literally, all backups. Not a single regular starter was in the lineup on the Bengals' frontline, and the Titans were able to hit Burrow a grand total of two times. Zero sacks. Not good.
But there could be a small glimmer of hope here. The Titans' defensive performance on Sunday against the Bears was fantastic. They sacked Foles three times without blitzing on a single dropback and kept the Bears to an anemic 2-for-15 on third downs. True, the Bears have the second-worst third-down offense in the NFL, but I'm not here to rain on anyone's parade.
The good news is that Indy is another Titans opponent that is generally bad at moving the chains. The Colts rank 28th in conversion rate (38 percent) and are coming off a woeful 2-for-12 performance against Baltimore. Rivers has just a 58 percent completion rate, a 71.7 passer rating, and four interceptions on third downs this season. It will be interesting to see how Titans head coach Mike Vrabel utilizes his defense. Will he blitz Rivers and that super stout offensive line, or will he lay back and let Rivers make mistakes as he cycles through his limited receiving core?
3. King Henry vs. the Colts' run D
The Colts very well may have the best run defense in the game today. They were a force against the Ravens on Sunday, holding Baltimore's record-setting rushing attack to just 110 yards on 38 carries for 2.9 yards per clip. Indy held Baltimore to just 18 yards rushing in the first half.
The Colts rank first in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.3) and third in rushing yards per game (83.6). For Indy's D, it's their linebacking core that sets them apart, starting with Darius Leonard. Despite only playing six games this season, Leonard leads the Colts in tackles (51) and had a league-high 13 solo tackles against Baltimore. Leonard and the linebacking crew are vital to keeping runners in check at the line of scrimmage. Indy's defense is fourth in second-level yards (5-10 yards) and first in open field yards (10+) allowed this season. That could prove huge against the reigning rushing king, Derrick Henry.
Henry is second in the league in rushing (843 yards) behind Dalvin Cook but has struggled in recent weeks. In two of the last three games, Henry has been kept under 100 rushing yards, and his game average over those three games is 20 yards below his season average of 105.4 yards per game. What's been most alarming about Henry in the last few weeks is his inability to escape from defenders. He's broken just three tackles in the last three games and didn't break a single tackle in 21 carries against the Bears when he rushed for 68 yards, which is just 3.2 yards per carry.
It will be interesting to watch if Henry can bounce back against such a stout Colts run D.
The Colts have to hope that the offensive output that showed up against Baltimore never rears its ugly head for the rest of the season. And there is a good chance they could get back on track against the Titans' bottom-tier pass defense. But I still don't have the confidence in Rivers' ability to lead a Colts offense starved for weapons that I do the Titans' balanced attack lead by Ryan Tannehill.
Prediction: Titans 24, Colts 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.