The Tennessee Titans (5-2) have a two-game lead on the Indianapolis Colts (3-4) in the AFC South.
Should the Titans win on Sunday, it’ll be awfully difficult for the Colts to dig themselves out of that kind of hole, especially after getting swept in the season series. So, it’s no surprise that Colts linebacker Darius Leonard didn’t consider what he told reporters on Thursday to be hyperbolic.
“I normally don't say any game is a must-win game,” Leonard told The Athletic. “But this is a must-win game.”
Tennessee has positioned itself near the top of the AFC standings after back-to-back wins over the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. The Titans of the past two weeks look like the Titans that the national media was crowning AFC favorites during the preseason.
These two teams met five weeks ago but a lot has changed in that time. Colts quarterback Carson Wentz has strung together four straight impressive performances since, passing for 1,003 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions.
Wentz has had a passer rating at 106 or better in each of those starts, and the Colts are 3-1 in those games. But the Titans suddenly find themselves with one of the most feared pass rushes in the NFL. Tennessee’s defensive line versus Indianapolis’ offensive line could be the matchup to watch.
“Obviously, [he’s been] much more effective [since Week 3],” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of Wentz. “He is doing a really nice job. I think his health probably has a big reason to do with that. Also, their ability to improve as the season has gone on, this is a much better football team in all phases than the one we saw, and that was a difficult test then.
“They are essentially 4-0, they won four games in a row. I know they lost to the Ravens, but they played outstanding. They just unfortunately ran into a tough night with how Lamar [Jackson] played there in the second half.”
Here’s a further look at Sunday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Derrick Henry.
Not only is Henry leading the NFL in rushing and rushing touchdowns — he’s a good 290 yards ahead of Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor, who is second with 579 rushing yards — but he has more rushing yards by himself than 26 teams have total.
Henry has also had four straight 100-yard rushing games against the Colts. No other running back has had a 100-yard game against Indy since Matt Eberflus took over as defensive coordinator in 2018.
“That's a big task for anybody to tackle Henry," Eberflus said. "It's a team effort; it's everybody on the defense. There's no house guests. Everybody's got to tackle."
Added Leonard: "[We have to] just [get] seven-plus to the ball. [We have to] hamstring tackle, squeeze, wrap [him up] and roll.”
In the Week 3 matchup, Henry ran for 113 yards on 28 carries and added three receptions for 31 yards. That was a game, however, that both A.J. Brown and Julio Jones did not finish. This time around, Ryan Tannehill should have his full complement of weapons.
With Brown and Jones split out wide, Henry could face fewer stacked boxes, leaving open the possibility he could break a long run. He’s had at least one run of 20 yards or longer in his past four games against Indianapolis.
“This is a big game for us, a divisional game,” Henry said. “They have been playing really good football and it is always tough playing these guys. This is a very important game.
“They have been playing lights out. Credit to them and how they are playing overall, but the defense has been playing lights out getting the ball out, getting turnovers, flying around to the ball and finishing games.”
Why the Colts can win
Indianapolis’ defense has really elevated its level of play over the past four games.
After allowing 25 or more points and an average of 373 yards of total offense in each of their first three games, Indy has since allowed just 17.2 points and 339 yards of total offense per game.
The Colts also lead the NFL in fumbles and total takeaways while ranking second in turnover differential and seventh in interceptions. Tennessee has lost four of its five fumbles this year, and Tannehill through seven games has thrown an uncharacteristic five interceptions (he only threw six in 12 games in 2019 and seven in 16 games last year).
The last time these two teams met, Tannehill had his only multi-interception game of the year. If the Colts can get to him early and force him out of the pocket, there could be a few opportunities to force turnovers.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_