The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans are set to meet Thursday night in a critical AFC South matchup. If the Colts win, they will likely have enough separation to win the division, but if the Titans win it will lead to a tight division race down the stretch, especially with the two teams meeting again two weeks later. Both teams have had their ups and downs this season, but at least one of them, and possibly both, will end up in the playoffs. With that in mind, are either the Colts or Titans true contenders to make a deep run in the AFC playoffs, or are they pretenders that will only get into the playoffs by virtue of winning a weak division?
The Colts have some of the most impressive wins in the NFL this season; they have handed both Denver and Seattle their only losses of the season, and they had a convincing road win over San Francisco early in the season that also caught everyone’s attention. However, ever since their win over the Broncos, the Colts have spiraled downhill, with a poor effort and a narrow win against Houston and an embarrassing loss to St. Louis.
For the past month, the Indianapolis defense has played much like they did last season, giving up 32 points per game over the last three games, and just like last year, it has put a lot of pressure on Andrew Luck and the offense. It’s possible that there’s even more pressure on Luck this season, as the Indianapolis running game has been inconsistent and at times non-existent, despite the team acquiring Trent Richardson earlier in the season. To make matters worse for Luck and the offense, Reggie Wayne went down with a season-ending injury in the Denver game, and his absence has coincided with Indy’s downward trajectory. Even with T.Y. Hilton playing his best in Wayne’s absence, Luck missing his best receiver has thrown him off his game.
The verdict on the Colts is that they’re a pretender. Even if they can get things turned around quickly, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to repeat their 11-win total from last year, even though they play in a weak division and have early-season wins against three of the NFL’s best teams. Even if Luck breaks out of his slump and plays well down the stretch, having a defense that’s unreliable and a running game that’s inconsistent will make it tough to do any damage in the playoffs, even if they can hold off the Titans and win the AFC South.
The Titans got off to a fast start this year, beginning the season 3-1 and giving the impression that they would be competitive in 2013. However, since then things have been different for the Titans. They understandably lost three straight games to three of the best teams in the NFL while Jake Locker missed time due to an injury, and then a loss to lowly Jacksonville and a season-ending injury to Locker have put them in a tough position heading down the stretch, making Thursday’s game against the Colts a must-win for them.
What gives Tennessee hope despite the loss of Locker for the rest of the season is that their defense may still be able to carry them. In a passing league, the Titan’s have one of the top-10 pass defenses in the NFL, and that could be enough to keep them in games and give them a chance to win going down the stretch. If backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can avoid the turnovers that have plagued his career, the Titans have the receivers that can move the ball, as well as a running back in Chris Johnson that can create big plays, and when combined with a stingy defense, that could be enough for the Titans to sneak into the playoffs.
However, despite a glimmer of hope, the Titans have to be labeled as pretenders. Even before Locker went down with a season-ending injury, there were questions about his ability to lead the Titans to wins against quality opponents, and there are similar questions about Fitzpatrick. Even if the Titan’s defense that we saw in September shows up for the rest of November and December, Tennessee is in too big of a hole to win the division without the Colts continuing to struggle, and even if that were to happen, the Titans don’t have the offensive firepower to make any noise in the playoffs.