INDIANAPOLIS – A strong second half comeback two weeks ago in Tennessee produced a big triumph for the Colts.
The 30-27 victory came after Indianapolis trailed twice by 14 points in the first half. It became a bit more significant last week when the Colts lost and the Titans won.
The week 12 results moved Tennessee back within two games of Indianapolis with five to go. The Colts have owned or shared the division lead since week three and now is no time to relinquish more ground.
A victory Sunday would not seal the division crown, but it would move the Colts much closer to their first such title since 2010.
Beating the Titans would cap a Thanksgiving week, and here are SEVEN VICTORY KEYS:
SCORE FIRST – While comebacks by the Colts have shown that early leads don't always hold up, the last four opponents all have scored TDs within the first five minutes of the game. Three times, the Colts' offense has taken the field down 7-0, and the other time St. Louis scored on a takeaway. Two of the last four opponents have reached the end zone on their two opening drives. For nothing but the chance to have a first-half lead for the first time since October, it would be nice to score first.
FIRST HALF THIRD DOWNS – This point is plagiarized with the exact wording from last week, but rarely has a problem stood out so dramatically. Last week at Arizona, Indianapolis failed to produce first downs on five-of-six first-half possessions. Indianapolis was zero-for-five in the opening half while falling behind by 27 points. In the first halves of the last four games (when the Colts have not led at any point), the club has converted 12 percent (three-of-25) of its first-half third down attempts. It has led to three-and-outs on 11-of-24 possessions, plus another with a turnover on a drive's second play. When the Colts got untracked at Tennessee, they had four 10-plus play drives that all accounted for at least four first downs, more than 21 minutes of possession time and for 20 of their 30 points. Finding such a flow early could hinge on converting third downs.
NO FITZ – Ryan Fitzpatrick was 22-of-28 passing in the first meeting, plus got loose for 26 yards on four rushes. He was able to convert three third downs via passes in opening with two TD drives. For the game, he targeted Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright on 22 of his attempts, hitting them 19 times for 171 yards and a TD. Most were underneath passes that gained healthy yards after the catch. Fitzpatrick could visit that well again, and Carson Palmer dabbled some in that approach last Sunday. He has other threats in Justin Hunter and Nate Washington, plus Fitzpatrick has nailed 71.8 percent of his passes with a 5:0 TD:int ratio in the last three games (110.7 rating). He bears watching, given the recent success of QBs.
KEEP RUSHING GAME AVAILABLE –** Last week, Trent Richardson and Donald Brown combined for nine rushing attempts and 16 yards. The nature of the game took the ground attack out of the mix. Indianapolis was able to run for 137 yards at Tennessee, with 99 coming in the second half. Indianapolis is 6-1 this year when topping 100 yards on the ground, 4-0 when running at least 30 times. Regardless of Sunday's game plan, keeping the running game relevant is important. Indianapolis ran for three scores at Tennessee, and the last TD drive included runs on 10-of-11 snaps. Brown has been very effective in this series of late.
CALLING BILLY RAY BATES? – The Colts need some production beyond T.Y. Hilton in the passing game. The Colts have three wide receivers in addition to Hilton and some help is needed to stretch the field with the subtraction of Reggie Wayne. Colts QBs have a 117.5 rating when targeting Hilton in the last four games, a 34.8 rating to all other receivers. Hilton's 24 receptions, 333 yards and three TDs are more than those others combined (21-204, 0 TDs/2 ints.), and other WRs have been targeted 16 times more than has Hilton. Darrius Heyward-Bey could be a big boost. LaVon Brazill, we could use it. Da'Rick Rogers has been on the active roster for two games, maybe Sunday could be the start of something. Something is needed.
CAP CHRIS –** Chris Johnson capped scoring drives with 30- and seven-yard TD runs for an early 14-0 lead two weeks ago. Johnson had 70 rushing yards on those drives, but did not reach 100. He is a breakout run waiting to happen. Setting the edge is critical for a talent like Johnson. He never has flipped a game like division mates Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew have done. Sunday would be a rotten time. Johnson has cracked 100 yards only twice in eight games against the Colts. The Colts need to keep him bottled up.
MEMO TO PLAYERS: HANG TIGHT – This is a very close team that is battling through adversity. It is a locker room of character, and that reservoir has been called upon many times. Not every game goes smoothly, we've seen that. If a storm needs to be weathered, rely on your brotherhood. It's worked before. It will be a stadium of anxious fans, but the 12th Man is there. Hang tough.
QUOTE TO NOTE(Andrew Luck on the importance of the Tennessee game)
"It's huge. In my short career so far, I've realized that every game is huge in the NFL, especially when it's a division game at home against a salty, good team in Tennessee. It's always fun to play them because we know it's going to be a heavyweight fight."