NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The blueprint for the vision of Chris Ballard and Frank Reich was on full display Sunday evening at Nissan Stadium.
Run the football. Stop the run. Return to the playoffs.
“Absolutely,’’ Frank Reich said after his Indianapolis Colts’ overpowered the Tennessee Titans 33-17 to earn their first playoff berth since 2014. “This is it. This is playoff football.
“That was winning in the trenches on both sides. Run the football. Stop the run. Play-action pass in chunks, which we had.’’
Andrew Luck passed for 285 yards and threw touchdowns to Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron and Ryan Hewitt, but the overriding factor might have been the Colts’ ability to slam away with their ground game. They rushed 36 times for 158 yards. Marlon Mack finished with 119 yards and one TD on 25 carries. Rookie Jordan Wilkins had 18 yards on three carries and Luck added 20 on four carries before three game-ending kneel downs.
“You have to’’ be able to run effectively insisted Luck. “Yeah, we needed to run the ball well and we certainly got off to a great start and that was awesome.’’
On the Colts’ game-opening 12-play, 92-yard drive, Luck completed 6-of-7 passes for 87 yards, capped by an 11-yard strike to Inman.
But on the ensuing 90-yard drive, Mack did more of the heavy lifting. He carried eight times for 32 yards.
Defensively, the Colts allowed Derrick Henry 93 on 16 carries, but his stats were deceptive. He had 62 of his yards on three carries – 33-, 19- and 10-yard gains.
The Colts’ run defense entered the game ranked number 8 against the run and finished as one of three groups – Houston and New Orleans were the others – to not allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
Spreading it around
Luck’s three touchdown passes pushed his season total to 39, one shy of matching his career high set in 2014. It was second-most in the NFL to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (50).
His third of the game went to Hewitt, and was noteworthy. Hewitt was the 13th different player to catch a TD from Luck, tying the NFL record shared by Matt Ryan (2016) and Drew Brees (2018).
“We’ve been trying to get that one for a while to be honest with you,’’ Reich said with a smile. “We knew as a staff that that 13th was out there. We tried to game plan it for a few weeks and it didn’t happen, and then it kind of happened by accident today.
“That’s special because we talk about being selfless. We like to spread the ball around. When everyone contributes, it just makes it that much more fun.’’
Leonard finishes strong
Linebacker Darius Leonard offered additional evidence to be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The second-round draft pick led the Colts with 8 tackles, upping his season total to an NFL-best 163 (by 19). That broke Jeff Herrod’s team record of 160. The last rookie to lead the league in tackles was Luke Kuechly in 2012.
Leonard also notched his second interception of the season and defended two passes.
This and that
Ebron’s TD pass in the first quarter was his 13th of the season. That’s tied for second-most in the NFL and is the fourth-highest total in team history. Only Marvin Harrison (15 in 2001 and ’04; 14 in 2000) and Raymond Berry (14 in 1959) had more in a season for the Colts. The 13 TDs are tied for the ninth-most by a tight end in NFL history.
T.Y. Hilton was noticeably limited by an injury to his right ankle. Even so, he finished with two catches for 61 yards. Since week 8, he led the NFL with 951 receiving yards.
Rookie defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis had to be helped off the field in final minute of 2nd quarter with an apparent injury to his right leg. He did not return.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.