One Big Storyline
It may seem silly to play around with NFL Playoff simulators in October, but since the 3-2-1 Colts' Week 7 game against the 3-2 Tennessee Titans is their final divisional matchup until Week 18, Sunday's game carries enormous consequences in the AFC South.
Using the New York Times' 2022 NFL Playoff simulator, if the Colts beat the Titans on Sunday, they'll have a 62 percent chance of winning the AFC South. Lose, and the Colts' chances of winning their division for the first time since 2014 drop to 30 percent.
"Obviously knowing Tennessee has run the AFC South the past few years, everything we want to achieve kind of goes through them," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Losing two games to them last year obviously killed our hopes of ever competing for that crown – even the years before losing to them at home. Thankfully we have another opportunity against them on Sunday. I know it's going to be a great battle and we're looking forward to it."
The Colts haven't beat the Titans in their last four meetings, and it's not a coincidence the Titans are the two-time defending AFC South champions. Each of those last four losses has been completely different, and there's not necessarily one common thread for why the Titans have had the Colts' number since Week 12 of the 2020 season.
In those losses, the Colts have won the turnover battle 3-0 (Week 3, 2021), got out to an early lead (Week 8, 2021) and nearly fought back from a 24-3 first-half deficit (Week 4, 2022). None of them have followed the same script, but they've all had the same ending.
"They're physical upfront on both sides of the ball but probably the thing that Tennessee does as well as anybody, is they don't beat themselves," head coach Frank Reich said. "They're really good at situational football, they don't beat themselves, turnover ratio is normally pretty good and they are a very disciplined team. So, a very good football team. No. 1 seed last year in the AFC, obviously division champs. All roads go through Nashville."
The Colts will, too, be looking for a similar turnaround in their second meeting with a division opponent to the one they had last week in beating the Jacksonville Jaguars, who shut out the Colts in Week 2. And that turnaround starts with not turning the ball over, as the Colts did three times in their 24-17 Week 4 loss to the Titans.
"We know this team is very disciplined," Reich said. "They take care of the ball, they create turnovers, they're good up front. I'm optimistic we can turn the tables. We did that against Jacksonville where we couldn't have played any poorer than we played against Jacksonville in the first game. We were able to turn the tables in the second game. It's not going to be easy. It's a good football team. They're really good and very well-coached. I think we are too. I think we are too. It'll be interesting."
Back to those percentages, though. This game is not a must-win in the sense that its result will not definitively decide the AFC South (there are very few true must-win games in the NFL, for what it's worth). But because it's the Colts' fifth game against an AFC South opponent – and an opponent that very much looks like a contender in the division once again – it carries outsize importance for a Week 7 matchup.
Usually games of this magnitude come with snow on the ground, not when the leaves are changing colors.
"You have to match their intensity," defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said. "You can't lay down and you can't give up anything. They're probably saying the same thing about us. They won the division the last couple of years which means we have to go out there and take it."
Who's In, Who's Out
The Colts' final practice report of the week, with game designations:
5 Things To Watch
The return of Jonathan Taylor. Taylor said he wasn't quite ready to play last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but felt more like himself in practice this week. Taylor was listed as a full participant in the Colts' Thursday and Friday practices this week, and along with running back Nyheim Hines was not given a game status (questionable/doubtful/out) for Sunday.
"I would anticipate (Taylor's) playing," Reich said. "We'll see if there are any limitations.
"... if JT is healthy and he's in the mode, it's going to be JT's game. Then Nyheim and Deon (Jackson) would be complementary pieces."
The Colts' run game hasn't taken off through six games this season, but that's not unusual. Taylor averaged 5.7 yards per carry in Weeks 6-18 last season; he was at 4.5 yards/attempt in the first five weeks of 2021. Taylor will make his return averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season, and we'll see if as he works his way back into the offense, the Colts find some solutions – just like they did a year ago.
What will the Colts' offense lean into? The Colts threw the the ball 58 times – often quick passes from no-huddle – in Week 6 because that gameplan worked against a specific opponent in the Jaguars. But having Matt Ryan drop back at such a high rate may not be the plan in Week 7.
"You do anything too much, defenses are going to catch on and have a different plan," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. "Obviously, we were able to do that this week, but I would think that nobody really saw that coming. So we've got to find different ways to, not disguise, but have different plans knowing the defenses are going to be on to it a little bit. Each week is going to be different. What do they do well? How can we attack them? How can we marry stuff off of what they're seeing about us on film?"
With Taylor back, the Colts may strive for more balance on offense (which, Reich said, does not necessarily mean a 50/50 run/pass ratio). But like with the Jaguars, the Colts learned in Week 4 what does and doesn't work against the Titans, and can try to lean into some of those things they did well while cutting back on the stuff that was less successful. It might be something, as Brady said, nobody saw coming. We'll see on Sunday.
Limiting Derrick Henry's efficiency. Since 2019, the Titans are 8-6 when Henry averages fewer than four yards per carry, and are 21-8 when Henry averages four or more yards per carry. It's even more pronounced when Henry goes over five yards per carry – the Titans are 13-3 over the last four seasons when Henry hits that mark.
So, baseline, it doesn't guarantee victory to mute Henry's efficiency. But it's a good start for a defensive gameplan against a run-oriented offense.
"Got a lot of respect for the run game," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "Their blocking scheme, they are who they are, but they do it extremely well. They do some different motions, jets and things like that to try to get you out of your gaps. They're trying to get vertical seams. If they can get vertical seams with the runners that they have, they can be very effective. We got our work cut out for us with this team."
Can the Colts get Tennessee to play from behind? On average, the Titans are starting first-half drives this season while up by 3.6 points, the second-highest point differential in the NFL. Meanwhile the Colts are, on average, down by 4.2 points when starting drives in the first half, third-lowest in the league.
With those leads, the Titans are the only offense in the NFL without a first-half turnover this season; their 56 percent scoring rate on first-half drives is fourth-highest and 10 of their 12 touchdowns have come in the first two quarters. As a result, the Titans have run 194 plays while leading (sixth-most in the NFL) and only 98 plays while losing (third-fewest).
No team, though, is averaging fewer yards per play while losing than the Titans' 3.7; their turnover rate of 3.1 percent while losing is the fifth-highest in the NFL. The challenge, of course, is getting Tennessee to play from behind.
"It's going to take really good effort from us," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We're going to have to play good football, the kind of football that we envisioned as this team was coming together during the spring. We're going to have to play clean, we're going to have to play tough and find a way, but I have a lot of confidence in our group."
And can the Colts keep Tennessee out of the red zone? No team has been better at turning red zone possessions into touchdowns than the Titans in 2022, and it's not particularly close – Tennessee's 92.3 percent red zone touchdown rate is No. 1 in the NFL, well ahead of No. 2 Kansas City (76 percent).
But the Titans are averaging only 2.4 red zone drives per game, fourth-fewest in the NFL; they also only have one touchdown of 21 or more yards, so it's not like Tennessee's offense is consistently gashing opponents and eliminating the need to even possess the ball in the red zone.
Meanwhile, the Colts have only allowed seven drives – about one per game – begin inside an opponent's 25-yard line and end in the red zone, underscoring the ability of Bradley's defense to prevent long scoring possessions. And the Colts' defense is allowing explosive plays (15+ yards) at the ninth-lowest rate in the NFL (5.7 per game).
"Overall we've been a pretty good tackling team and we've been keeping things in front of us," Bradley said. "That prevents explosive plays and it's a big part."
In Week 4, two of Tennessee's three drives that ended with a touchdown started in Colts territory following turnovers. The Titans did have one touchdown drive that churned 75 yards, but entering Week 7, they have the league's sixth-lowest scoring percentage (23.7 percent) when starting a drive inside their own 25-yard line.
This'll be a big afternoon not only for Bradley's defense to continue to limit explosive plays, but for Bubba Ventrone's special teams units to cover kickoffs and punts well to force the Titans to drive the length of the field. And, of course, for the Colts' offense to eliminate the kind of turnovers that allow Tennessee to operate on a short field.