There are a million reasons to believe the Titans will lose this game. They will not only be facing Andrew Luck — I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but they’re 0-10 against him — but they’ll be facing Andrew Luck without Jurrell Casey, Logan Ryan, and Delanie Walker. They also will likely have either a less-than-100% Marcus Mariota or Blaine Gabbert behind center.
The Colts are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winners of 8 of their last 9 games after a 1-5 start. In their first meeting — just 6 weeks ago — the Colts thumped the Titans 38-10 in a game that was over by halftime.
I get the dread that some fans have. I do.
However, I’m here to spread some Christmas cheer and hope for a playoff-filled New Year. Below are a few reasons for optimism that go above and beyond the old “any given Sunday” qualifier.
The Titans aren’t the same team they were 6 weeks ago
When the Titans and Colts met in Indianapolis in Week 11, Derrick Henry had just 3 carries before the start of the 4th quarter. He was effective in the work he did get, rushing 9 times for 46 yards, but he largely wasn’t a factor into the offense until after the game was out of hand.
Henry’s usage has skyrocketed over the last three weeks as he’s received 17, 33, and 21 carries against the Jaguars, Giants, and Redskins. He’s turned that increase in opportunity into 492 yards at a 6.93 yards per carry clip and 7 touchdowns. Henry’s emergence has dramatically changed the Titans rushing attack and while the Colts defense has been great against the run — ranked 4th in run defense DVOA — they’ll still have their hands full with Henry’s unique skill set on Sunday.
The Colts could also find themselves without two of their best run defenders for this game as starting safety Clayton Geathers and starting linebacker Anthony Walker both missed their game against the Giants last week. Walker is typically the player charged with getting the defense lined up correctly so not having him on the field could create some organizational issues in addition to a drop off in talent. Regardless of whether these guys end up being able to play, I would expect the Titans to try to establish Henry early and often.
Another way the Titans have changed since their first meeting is the return of defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Pees suffered a medical emergency during the 1st quarter of the Week 11 matchup and had to be rushed to a local hospital, leaving head coach Mike Vrabel to call and organize the defense for nearly the entire game. That may not sound like a huge deal, but it is. It’s one thing for a head coach to call plays for one side of the ball when he’s been preparing to do that all week, it’s another to have it foisted upon him at the last second with no time to prepare. Plus, even coaches who call plays have coordinators who can help them manage in-game adjustments when that unit is on the sideline while the head coach keeps his eyes on the field. Vrabel didn’t have that help in addition to not having advanced notice. That’s a big deal for a coaching staff.
Since playing each other in Week 11, both teams are 5-1 with the Titans loss coming on the road against the Texans while the Colts fell in Jacksonville. The Titans are outscoring opponents over that span 105 to 81 compared to a 102 to 78 spread for the Colts. That’s about as even as it could get over the last month.
The Titans are a different team in Nissan Stadium
The Titans are 6-1 at home and 3-5 on the road in 2018. In 2017, they were 6-2 at home and 3-5 on the road. In 2016, they were 5-3 at home and 4-4 on the road. Over their past 19 games at Nissan Stadium, the Titans are a sparkling 16-3. Only the Patriots have won more home games over that time period.
This season the difference has been stark, particularly for the offense. Here are some key stats for the Titans broken out by home and road numbers:
- Points Scored: 23.0 at home, 16.5 on the road
- Points Allowed: 16.9 at home, 19 on the road
- Yards Per Carry: 4.6 at home, 4.2 on the road
- TD/INT Ratio: 9 TD / 3 INT at home, 6 TD / 7 INT on the road
- Yards Per Attempt: 7.5 at home, 6.3 on the road
- Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt: 6.9 at home, 4.9 on the road
These are some pretty big differences between road performance and home performance over the course of this season. It’s clear that this team plays at a different level at Nissan Stadium.
The Colts are a different team on the road
Similar to the Titans, the Colts have really excelled in Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis is 6-2 at home and just 3-4 on the road. Their splits on key stats reflect that as well:
- Points Scored: 29.9 at home, 23.0 on the road
- Points Allowed: 20.4 at home, 23.4 on the road
- Yards Per Carry: 4.2 at home, 4.2 on the road
- TD/INT Ratio: 21 TD / 5 INT at home, 15 TD / 9 INT on the road
- Yards Per Attempt: 7.6 at home, 6.1 on the road
- Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt: 8.0 at home, 5.5 on the road
Part of this phenomenon could be schedule related as the Colts opened their season with 4 road games in the first 6 weeks while Luck was still rounding into form following his long recovery from shoulder surgery. However, it’s not exactly a new thing for the Colts to struggle away from Indy. Here are Andrew Luck’s career home and road splits courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com:
- Home: 30-13 record, 61.6% comp, 89 TD, 34 INT, 7.4 YPA
- Away: 22-20 record, 59.8% comp, 79 TD, 48 INT, 6.9 YPA
Playing this game in front of what should be a deafening Nissan Stadium crowd absolutely makes a difference.
Streaks are made to be broken
On December 14, 2008, the Titans traveled to Reliant Stadium in Houston to take on the Texans. The Titans were 12-1 on the season with the Texans coming in at 6-7. Tennessee had won 7 straight against its division rival dating all the way back to the start of the 2005 season. The Texans won 13-12 despite already being eliminated from playoff contention and facing a Titans team that still needed to stack wins to clinch the AFC’s 1 seed. The previous 7 wins over Houston didn’t help the Titans one bit on that day, just like Andrew Luck’s 10-0 mark against the Titans won’t help him on Sunday.
However, if we must talk about the streak, let’s at least do it with proper context.
From 2012 to 2015, the Titans were 18-46 overall. It was easily the worst stretch of football this franchise has had since the team moved to Nashville. So the Titans losing to Luck 7 times during that timeframe — the 8th game at the end of 2015 was the infamous Ryan Lindley/Josh Freeman versus Zach Mettenberger/Alex Tanney debacle — isn’t necessarily surprising. They were losing to a lot of teams and the Colts were good, making the playoffs in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Despite how bad the Titans were, the losses to the Colts during this stretch were still mostly competitive. There was a 19-13 overtime game in Tennessee in 2012, followed by a 27-23 in Indy where the Titans held a 20-7 lead heading into halftime. In 2013, the Titans raced out, again, to a 17-6 halftime lead before Luck led a comeback to win 30-27 in Nashville. The return match in Indianapolis later that year saw the Titans stick around, even taking a second half lead again, before eventually losing 22-14. The 2014 matchups weren’t as close. In Indy, the Titans were blown out 41-17, and then dropped the home meeting 27-10 (though that game was within one score entering the 4th quarter). 2015 gave us just one loss to Luck as Marcus Mariota very nearly tied the matchup at Nissan Stadium (then known as LP Field) in the final minute, but an ill-fated 2-point conversion attempt with Jalston Fowler dropped them 35-33. Luck was held out of the matchup in Indy due to injury. That’s five one-score games and two blowouts over this stretch.
Over the past three years, the Titans have faced Luck three times and lost all three. First there was the 34-26 Colts win in a back and forth game Tennessee. They followed that with a 24-17 loss in Indy where the Colts raced out to a 21-0 lead early before the Titans battled back, but Tennessee was never quite able to break through. Finally, we have the blowout in Indy earlier this season.
So out of 10 wins, Andrew Luck and the Colts have blown the Titans out 3 times and won 7 one-score games. The stat nerd in me would point out that consistently winning one-score games over a long period of time is virtually impossible. Bettors and analysts use a particularly strong record in one-score games as an indicator that a team is due to regress the following year. While that’s usually used to look at season to season trends, it’s applicable over any significant sample size of games.
Andrew Luck doesn’t have some sort of magic spell over the Titans franchise. He’s played on the better team for every game except (arguably) the two 2016 games and has gotten exceptionally fortunate in one-score games against the Titans. That streak, like the Titans streak over the Texans in the mid-2000’s will fall at some point. Will that point come on Sunday night? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t happen it’s not because of any voodoo that Luck holds over this franchise.
So yes, the Titans do have a chance to win and get into the playoffs for the second straight year. If they can pull it off, it will be the biggest win in Nissan Stadium since the Titans overtime win over the Steelers to send them to the 2003 AFC Championship Game.