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Luck: 10-0 record vs. Titans meaningless
The numbers suggest Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck owns the Tennessee Titans.
He's 10-0 against the AFC South division rival entering Sunday's all-important, prime-time showdown to decide a playoff spot at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. But Luck reiterated Wednesday that the past doesn't have any impact on this game between two 9-6 teams.
"No, it doesn't matter," Luck said. "We talk about going 1-0 this week, the cycle starts over. What happened previously, what happened in previous years, it doesn't matter, what happened last weekend, it does not matter.
"It's a new cycle every week, you turn on the film and you see a defense that's ranked top 10 in like 15 or 20 categories. They have rushers, they have guys who can cover, they bring a lot of different stuff, they challenge a lot of different rules in a sense as an offense when you're going up against their defense. We know the challenge that they create. Again, we're exited for it, and also a lot of respect for that team. A lot of respect."
The Colts have climbed from a 1-5 hole to win eight of nine games for a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Titans have won four in a row since back-to-back road losses to the Colts (38-10) and division-leading Houston Texans (34-17).
The winner earns at least the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. There's also an outside shot at the division title, which would mean a third or fourth seed, but the Colts-Titans winner would need the Texans (10-5) to lose at home to heavy underdog Jacksonville (5-10).
First-year Colts head coach Frank Reich continues to reiterate that his team's approach to each game hasn't changed since they started with those five losses. Staying the course has served the Colts well, he reminded on Wednesday, so there's no need to get caught up in the significance of this game.
"One of the things I mentioned to the team today is, I said, 'Hey, guys, this is a playoff game. We've been in that mode since we were 1-5, so that's to our advantage,'" Reich said. "We've been playing this kind of football. We've been having this kind of mentality, we were forced into it. That was the bad thing, but the good that comes out of it is we had to embrace that mindset and take hold of that mindset."
After wins against teams with two of the NFL's best rushers, No. 1 Ezekiel Elliott of Dallas and rookie Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, the Colts defense will be fixated on limiting Titans running back Derrick Henry. In those last four wins, Henry has used his punishing, tackle-breaking style to run for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. That included a career-high 238 yards and four touchdowns in a home rout of Jacksonville.
The last time these teams met, Henry ran for 46 yards on nine carries.
"He's so big," Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said of Henry, 6-3 and 247. "He's a huge guy and he's got great cutback ability and his stiff-arm is pretty good. Just got to make him stop his feet. I think we will be fine from there."
Leonard, whose 155 total tackles are 23 more than the next player in the NFL, says the key is being physical in the trenches.
"Start with the front, start with the front seven," he said. "Display and line of scrimmage, so he can't get going. Then the back end, just coming downhill (running) pretty good."
The Titans are 6-1 this season when Henry scores a touchdown. The Colts are one of just three teams that haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher. The Titans are ranked fifth in rushing offense at 128.7 yards per game. The Colts are ranked eighth in rushing defense at 102.2 yards allowed per game.
"There is no doubt we all know they want to run the football," Reich said. "I mean, (Henry) is an elite back, they run the football extremely well. They are good up front, so no doubt preparing to stop that running game is a big-time priority."
And what will the Titans do about Luck? They tried to no avail to blitz him last time, one week after Tennessee was effective with extra pass rushers in a home win over New England. Because that didn't work before, will the Titans back off and flood the passing lanes more? Or will Titans first-year head coach Mike Vrabel believe that this time his blitzers will be able to disrupt Luck's timing just enough?
A key to Luck's success, aside from being healthy for the first time since injuring his shoulder at Tennessee in 2015, is an offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked just 17 times, best in the NFL.
Luck has completed a career-high 406 passes and is on the verge of a personal-best completion percentage (67.2 through 15 games). He's passed for 4,308 yards with 36 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Before the last meeting, Vrabel reminded his players that Luck was unbeaten against the franchise. It doesn't sound like he's reminding them this time of that which they are well aware.
"I don't think they are looking at that too much this week. I don't think so," Vrabel said on a conference call. "I think they are looking at it as two good teams that are fighting to try to find a way to get into the playoffs. I don't think we can look at it any other way than that.
"We understand that he's a great quarterback. They've got good players and it will be a big challenge for us to try to defend them. For us on offense, it will be important for us to try to do a little better than we did last time against them."
SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Colts lead series, 32-15. The Colts won the previous meeting 38-10 on Nov. 18 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Titans swept the season series in 2017 for just the second time, the other in 2002. The Colts lost 36-22 at Tennessee last season, but won the previous five games in Nashville, when Andrew Luck was the Colts quarterback. He missed last season due to shoulder surgery. The most memorable meeting was on Jan. 16, 2000, when the underdog Titans upset the second-seeded Colts 19-16 in an AFC divisional playoff game at what was then called the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.