Colts top Titans, make playoffs following 1-5 start
The Indianapolis Colts have been one of the more strange and interesting teams of the 2018 NFL season, and they continued their story with a Week 17 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday night to earn a postseason bid for the first time in five years.
The Colts hung on to beat Tennessee, 33-17, as Titans QB Blaine Gabbert struggled and RB Derrick Henry couldn’t quite get into the same groove that helped the Titans enter this win-or-go-home game with a shot at back-to-back years in the playoffs. The result of the game also offcially knocked the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season.
Gabbert started slowly, looking unsure of himself in his replacement start for starter Marcus Mariota, who was ruled out with neck and foot injuries. Despite the shaky performance, Gabbert started heating up in the fourth quarter and the Titans trailed by only a TD, but his awful interception to the Colts’ Kenny Moore pretty much closed the door on their season.
Colts head coach Frank Reich — their second choice for the job — took over a team that went 4-12 last season and one that wasn’t sure of what it had with QB Andrew Luck, who had not taken a snap since the 2016 finale. But Luck turned in a brilliant season, one of the big reasons the Colts were able to become just the second team in the 16-game era to start 1-5 and make the postseason.
The Colts will head to Houston to face the Texans, who clinched the division on Sunday, for the wild-card round. That game will kick off the first weekend of the playoffs early next Saturday. The Colts and Texans split the season series, with Indy losing the first matchup in Week 4 after Reich’s controversial fourth-down call in overtime but then winning the Week rematch in NRG Stadium.
Luck wasn’t perfect in Sunday’s game against the Titans but made enough big throws, including TD passes to Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron and Ryan Hewitt. That none of those three players were on the team is emblematic of the kind of wild season it has been for the Colts. Hewitt hadn’t caught a pass in a regular-season game in more than a year, and his last touchdown — which put the Colts up two scores in the second half — was his first since he was a junior at Stanford in 2012.
Gabbert finished with two interceptions, the second one to standout rookie LB Darius Leonard in the final minutes to officially seal the game. Henry had 93 yards rushing on 16 carries, including a 33-yarder that set up Luke Stocker’s TD to get Tennessee back in business in the second half. But with the Titans trailing almost the entire game, they had to throw more than they probably wanted to.
The Colts dominated early, taking a 14-0 lead on two TD drives 90 yards and longer, with the Titans going three-and-out twice and gaining only 15 yards. Luck hit 13 of his first 15 passes and threw TD strikes to Inman and Ebron, and the Colts looked like they were going to roll.
But Luck was pressured on the first play of their third possession, backed up near his own end zone, and threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted and run back 22 yards for a touchdown by Titans rookie linebacker Jayon Brown.
The Colts caught a major break after a three-and-out, as Titans returner Adoree Jackson muffed a punt and Indy recovered. It looked like the Colts were about to go up two touchdowns again as Marlon Mack (who finished with 119 rush yards and a TD) ran the ball into the end zone, but it was called back on a hold. Two plays later, Mack caught a swing pass from Luck, but Brown once again made a huge play. He stripped Mack and recovered the fumble to prevent another TD after the Colts had driven to the Tennessee 9-yard line.
Just before the half, Luck got away with a bad pass that went right into the hands of Titans LB Derrick Morgan for a sure interception — and another possible pick-six —but Morgan flat out dropped it. That forced the Colts to kick a field goal with less than a minute left in the second quarter, as Adam Vinatieri tacked on three to make it 17-7.
Gabbert also had a potential INT dropped in the final few seconds of the half, but the Titans matched the Colts’ field goal to cut into Indy’s halftime lead at 17-10.
The Colts didn’t win pretty, committing 12 accepted penalties, giving up the pick-six and losing a red-zone fumble. They let the Titans hang around too long before putting it away late. But they are not a team that cares for style points at this stage, having kept a miracle season going at least one more week — and into the playoffs.