Indianapolis Colts' playoff hopes riding on rematch with Tennessee Titans

“I normally never say this is a must-win game, but this is a must-win game,” Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard said of Sunday's tilt with the Tennessee Titans. Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS -- The last time the Indianapolis Colts faced the Tennessee Titans -- some 33 days ago -- their starting quarterback was limited in the pocket by two sprained ankles and their All-Pro linebacker moved around like he was on the decline of his career because he, too, was also dealing with an ankle injury.

The Colts walked off the field at Nissan Stadium Sept. 26 with a 25-16 loss, their third straight to open the season.

But now, quarterback Carson Wentz is playing some of his best football in years and linebacker Darius Leonard said he feels about “80% better” than he felt in late September. And most importantly, the Colts have won three of their past four games to improve to 3-4, putting them two games behind the Titans, who lead the AFC South.

That means their biggest test awaits Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, CBS) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis when they face the Titans in a rematch.

With a victory, the Colts would be right back in the thick of things in the AFC South race. With a loss, though, the Colts’ chances of winning the division would be slim because the Titans would not only have a three-game lead over their AFC South counterparts, they would have also swept the season series.

“I normally never say this is a must-win game, but this is a must-win game,” Leonard said Thursday.

The Colts find themselves in their current position because they opened the season 1-4 with a tough schedule that featured losses to the Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Rams.

As for the Titans, things were supposed to get difficult for them when they faced the Buffalo Bills, (arguably the best team in the AFC) and the Kansas City Chiefs (featuring star quarterback Patrick Mahomes) in less than a week.

So much for that, as the Titans beat both teams to send a message they have no intention of letting go of their stranglehold on the AFC South.

Colts coach Frank Reich is taking a complete opposite mindset from Leonard's when it comes to discussing the importance of Sunday’s game. A loss won’t end the Colts’ playoff aspirations because they’ll still have nine games remaining. But the easiest way to the playoffs is by winning the division.

“Blowing up the magnitude of the game in our day-to-day preparations probably doesn’t really do a lot,” Reich said. “I mean these guys are pretty motivated. Really, all that’s going to win this game is execution.

"So actually, sometimes what my experience is the emotion of the game can become a distraction. You want to find a way to use the emotion in a positive way to give you a little bit of extra juice, but I just think that can be overplayed, and if you get too amped up, it doesn’t normally end well because you get amped up for what? A play, a series?"

The Colts have gotten back in the mix by doing what they're supposed to do: Beat teams with losing records.

What's missing from their record is a victory against a team with a winning record. They blew that opportunity when they squandered a 19-point lead in the final 18 minutes of their overtime loss to Baltimore on October 11. It was after that game that Wentz said they needed to develop a "killer instinct" so that they could close out games. They showed exactly that when they finished off the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7.

“The last couple of weeks, just the way we finished ball games is encouraging," Wentz said. "It’s definitely finishing the right way. We go back a couple of weeks and we definitely didn’t. I think guys have kind of responded, and everybody’s taking pride – it’s the fourth quarter, it’s time to go, time to finish and not rest.”

There's a huge difference between beating a struggling San Francisco team and beating a Tennessee team that features Derrick Henry, who is showing no signs of slowing down as the premier running back in the NFL. Henry has rushed for at least 100 yards in four straight games (542 total rushing yards) against Indianapolis. The Titans are 3-1 in those games.

Hold Henry to fewer than 100 yards rushing, a goal the defense has, and the Colts have a chance to make the AFC South race interesting. Have him continue to run past, through and around them, and Indianapolis faces the possibility of its playoff hopes taking a substantial hit.

“That’s a big task for anybody to tackle Henry," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "It’s a team effort. It’s everybody on the defense. There’s no house guests, everybody’s got to tackle. ... You don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s about playing fundamentally sound; it’s about angles; it’s about tackling; and it’s about playing to your responsibility, given each defensive call. We have that mindset, the guys have that mindset and we’re excited to get to work this week.”