Colts at Titans: What to watch for Sunday night

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 04: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass during the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 4, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday night meeting with the Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.

 Kickoff: 8:20 p.m.

 Broadcast: NBC

  • Streaks on the line: Something’s gotta give. With everything on the line – the winner plays on, the loser cleans out lockers Monday – the outcome will be determined by which streak is ended.

The first: Andrew Luck is to the Titans what Bo Derek was the Hollywood four decades ago. That would be a 10. He’s yet to lose to the Titans in career 10 starts, tied with John Elway (10-0 vs. the Patriots) for the longest such streak in NFL history. He’s averaged 265 yards per game with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

“It doesn’t matter,’’ Luck said. “We talk about going 1-0 this week. The cycle starts over.’’

The second: the Titans bring an NFL-best four-game winning streak in the 256th and final game of the regular season. They’ve hardly dealt with a Murderer’s Row during their late-season surge – wins over the Jets, Jaguars, Giants and Redskins, who are a combined 21-39 – but they’ve done what’s needed to be done.

The Colts are old hands at dismissing winning streaks. They snapped the Texans’ nine-game streak in Houston in week 14 and halted Dallas’s five-game streak in Indy the following week.

As everyone who hasn’t been under a rock understands, this one’s as big as it gets in the regular season.

“Game 7,’’ T.Y. Hilton said.

With a ninth win in the last 10 games, the Colts return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. If Jacksonville cooperates and upsets the Texans earlier in the day, Indy wins the AFC South and hosts a first-round game Jan. 5-6.

Not that the players need added motivation, but the Colts are trying to avoid missing the playoffs in four straight seasons for the first time since 1988-94.

  • Strength on strength: Which group will dictate things? Luck and a Colts’ offense that ranks 7th in yards per game (382.9) and points (26.7)? Or a Titans’ defense that is 7th in fewest yards (326.5) and 2nd fewest points (18) allowed? In the mid-November meeting, it was all Indy. The Colts bolted to a 24-3 halftime lead en route to a 38-10 blowout as Luck passed for 297 yards, three TDs and a 143.8 passer rating.

The Titans regained their touch during their four-game winning streak. They’ve allowed averages of 271.8 yards per game and 4.3 per play, and 11.8 points. The opposition has converted just 16-of-56 third-down situations (28.6 percent).

As robust as the Titans’ defense has been, it won’t be close to full strength while dealing with Luck and Co. Top corner Logan Ryan and three-time Pro Bowl tackle Jurrell Casey are on IR. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo has been ruled out with an elbow injury.

  • More from T.Y.?: Hilton didn’t practice all week and was listed questionable on Friday’s injury report with a lingering injury to his right ankle.

In this instance, the injury report isn’t offering a reliable projection.

“You know I ain’t gonna be missing that,’’ he said. “Same mentality. Just continue to get my body right and get ready for Sunday.’’

Groin, shoulder and ankle injuries have limited Hilton to four practices in December. He’s missed 11 entirely, including two complete weeks of on-field preparation.

Frank Reich noted Hilton’s “superhuman’’ ability to perform at a high level without benefit of practice. He’s in the most prolific seven-game stretch of his career: 48 receptions, 856 yards, two TDs.

In the earlier blowout, Luck targeted Hilton nine times and Hilton made the most of them: nine catches, 155 yards, 68- and 14-yard TDs.

  • One more time from the D: Coordinator Matt Eberflus has squeezed every ounce of potential out of his defense. It ranks 11th overall (344.9 yards per game) and is 13th in scoring (21.8). The stat that matters: Indy features a run defense that ranks 8th, allowing 102.2 yards per game, and has routinely contained some of the NFL’s top backs.

That’s great. Now do it one more time.

It’s anybody’s guess whether the Titans start Marcus Mariota (questionable with a stinger) or Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. But everybody expects first-year head coach Mike Vrabel to lean heavily on running back Derrick Henry. Quiet over the first 12 games (39.5 yards per game, 3.7 per attempt), Henry has been an irresistible force over the last three (164 yards per game, 6.9 per attempt). In week 14 against Jacksonville, he set franchise records with 282 yards and four TDs.

“He’s an elite back,’’ Reich said, adding it’s imperative the defense send the “population to the ball’’ in order to contain the 6-3, 247-pound Henry.

In November, Henry averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the Colts, but 43 of his 46 yards came in the second half. That’s after the Titans fell into a 24-3 halftime hole and Indy wasn’t overly concerned with whatever they wanted to do on the ground.

  • And the winner is: Colts 27, Titans 21. This won’t be easy, even with the Titans missing three key components on defense and their uncertainty at quarterback. Since week 6 of 2016, they’re 16-3 at home, tied with New England for best in the league. They’re following the lead of Henry, who can wear down a defense if the game remains tight. But the Colts are one of the NFL’s hottest teams – 8-1 since week 7, tied for the best mark in the league over that stretch – and are playing effective complementary football. In a play-in game, we’ll take Andrew Luck, his 10-0 record against the Titans and his ability to make enough plays that will matter. He’s mounted a strong case for Comeback Player of the Year, and leading the Colts to the playoffs would represent another brick in the wall.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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