Preview: Once again, Colts face win-or-else scenario


NASHVILLE, TN – OCTOBER 23: Frank Gore #23 scores a touchdown against Sean Spence #55 of the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Tennessee Titans Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium:

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

Win or else: Chuck Pagano’s message was delivered early in the week, and hopefully found receptive ears.

“It’s playoff football, really,’’ he said. “Seven games left. It is what it is. We know, just like Tennessee knows, the easiest way to get in the tournament is to win your division.’’

In reality, the only path to the postseason for the 4-5 Colts or 5-5 Titans is winning the AFC South. A wild-card spot seems far-fetched considering the depth and strength of the AFC West where 7-2 Kansas City, 7-2 Oakland and 7-3 Denver reside.

The Colts haven’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 1997-98, but that’s a very real possibility if they’re unable to defend home turf against the Titans. At 4-6, they not only would risk falling further behind Houston, which is 6-3 and faces the Raiders in Mexico City Monday night, but also would face a stiffer challenge overtaking the Titans.

A couple of tidbits to keep in mind. First, the Colts have won 10 straight and 15 of the last 16 in the series with the Titans. Tennessee’s last win in Indy was in the final game of the ’07 regular season and requires an asterisk. The Colts were 13-2 and many of their front-liners played sparingly. The last time the Titans won in Indy when each team played at full strength from whistle-to-whistle was in 2002. Steve McNair was their QB.

And one more tidbit that speaks to the Colts’ inconsistency. They are one of five teams that have yet to win consecutive games this season. While they’ve managed to stutter-step their way to 4-5, the other four – Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and San Francisco – are a combined 6-30-1.

Look who’s back: The offense was at its statistical best in last month’s 34-26 win in Nashville. Andrew Luck passed for 353 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. T.Y. Hilton had seven receptions for 133 yards and one TD. Jack Doyle contributed 9 catches for 78 yards, both career bests, and the go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter. The offensive line allowed just two sacks and three hits on Luck.

And that was without wideouts Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett, tight end Dwayne Allen and left guard Jack Mewhort. All return for the rematch.

“It’s nice to have guys back, no doubt about it,’’ coordinator Rod Chudzinski said. “It allows you to open up your playbook a little bit more.’’

Titan-ic challenge: The Luck-led offense might once again have to be on top of its game, because the Titans bring to town one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. In three games since losing to the Colts, they’ve averaged 444.3 yards and 39.3 points per game. They’ve followed the lead of quarterback Marcus Mariota, who during that stretch has completed 70 percent of his passes for 878 yards with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 124.7 passer rating.

Mariota is the triggerman, and has plenty of support. Running back DeMarco Murray, who hit the Colts with 107 yards last month, is second in the league in rushing with 930 yards. Tight end Delanie Walker is the Titans’ leading receiver with 42 catches, 571 yards and five TDs. In the first meeting, he contributed seven catches, 84 yards and one TD.

“They’re ballin’ right now,’’ said Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams, who returns after missing one game with a groin injury.

The Titans utilize multiple formations and force defenses to play disciplined. When there’s an assignment error – such as failing to set the edge when Mariota runs the read-option with Murray or Derrick Henry – the result can be devastating. Despite their proclivity for power football, they have generated 60 big plays (runs of at least 10 yards, receptions of at least 25). That’s tied for the league lead.

“Probably the most important thing is we have to control their game-wreckers, because they have a few of them,’’ coordinator Ted Monachino said.

Exhibit A: On Tennessee’s first play in last week’s 47-25 rout of Green Bay, Murray found a massive whole to his left and ran through the Packers’ No. 1-ranked run defense for a 75-yard TD.

And the winner is: Colts 31, Titans 27. They’ve given us zero reason to believe they possess the wherewithal to do what needs to be done to salvage the season. Zero. These Colts have been the ultimate tease, flashing potential then following it up with a clunker. We’ll give them one more chance. But this is it.

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