The NFL regular season will officially come to an end with a vital matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts. The two AFC South rivals kick off at 8:20 EST on Sunday, December 30, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The game will be nationally broadcast on NBC.
Oddsmakers list the Colts as 3.5-point favorites on the road. The over/under is set at 43.5 points. Click here to check out a full list of this week’s NFL betting odds.
Plain and simple, this is a winner-take-all scenario. Both teams are 9-6 and currently tied for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. The winner will likely get the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs and the loser won’t play another meaningful game until next September. Also, if the Texans lose to Jacksonville, the winner of this game will win the AFC South and host a playoff game. However, the loser is definitely out.
The Colts enter this game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. They have won eight of their last nine games after a treacherous start to the season. Of course, Indianapolis may have been looking ahead a little bit, as they barely beat the Giants last week. Nevertheless, the Colts have just one loss since the middle of October.
The Titans, meanwhile, have had their highs and lows this year, but they’re also coming on strong late in the season. Tennessee has rattled off four straight wins, albeit against losing teams, to get to 9-6. With a win, the Titans will reach the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2008.
Of course, when these teams met in Week 11, the Colts demolished the Titans 38-10. Andrew Luck threw for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns. To date, Luck has yet to lose a game to the Titans. For what it’s worth, Marcus Mariota hurt his elbow late in the 1st half of that game, forcing the Titans to play Blaine Gabbert after trailing 24-3 at halftime. Oddly enough, Mariota is questionable for this game after suffering a stinger in last week’s game.
While these teams have identical records, there are few reasons other than home-field advantage pointing me to the Titans. Regardless of Mariota’s status, the Colts are far more balanced among offense, defense, and special teams. They’ve also proven that they can beat quality teams, including their blowout of Tennessee in Week 11. For me, this is an easy game to lean toward Indy to cover.
Even if Mariota were completely healthy, he’s not been someone the Titans can rely on carrying them in an important game. He’s had his moments this season and his mobility can make him difficult to defend at times. However, Mariota has not thrown the ball with the consistency you’d expect of a quarterback who’s about to lead his team to the playoffs for the second straight season. In some ways, he’s improved from last season, but I’m still wary to count on him giving a star performance in a big game, regardless of the questions about his health.
If the Titans are going to win this game, they’re going to need Derrick Henry to carry the load. All of a sudden, Henry has been outstanding the last three weeks, running for 492 yards and seven touchdowns during that span. However, he was held to a modest 88 yards last week against the Redskins, so he didn’t exactly dominate an average defense. Plus, the offense was only responsible for 19 of the team’s 25 points, so the Tennessee offense wasn’t exactly clicking against Washington.
Meanwhile, the Indianapolis defense is one of the best in the NFL at stopping the run. The Colts are giving up just 3.8 yards per carry on the ground this year. Just two weeks ago, they shut out the Cowboys, one of the best rushing teams in the league. They also limited the Titans to 87 yards on 25 carries in their meeting earlier this season. The Colts don’t even need to dominate the Tennessee running game. As long as they hold the Titans to a reasonable rushing total, they can put all the pressure on Mariota to beat them.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts should feel confident in Luck leading their offense. Luck will throw the occasional interception, but he’s also been remarkably consistent during the second half of the season. His offensive line has also done a great job of keeping him protected and cultivating a steady rushing attack behind Marlon Mack. When a quarterback with Luck’s talent has a comfortable pocket, he’s usually going to carve up a defense.
Of course, the Tennessee defense is no pushover. The Titans are giving up just 18 points per game. They’ve also allowed a total of 25 points over their last three games. Again, the Titans have only beaten losing teams during their current winning streak, so those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Putting up a similar defensive performance against Luck and the Colts won’t be as easy as facing Josh Johnson or Cody Kessler.
In the end, the Colts have the balance needed to win battles on both sides of the ball. More importantly, they have the better quarterback, regardless of how healthy Mariota is by Sunday. Having home-field advantage for a primetime game should give the Titans a little bit of a boost. But the Colts are the better team and I expect them to eventually seize control of the game enough to cover the spread.