Rivals Colts, Titans have swapped places in the AFC South

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Titans won the AFC South title in the first year of NFL realignment in 2002. The Titans then proceeded to watch the Indianapolis Colts grab the division crown in seven of the next eight seasons.

The AFC South was the Colts’ personal playground for years. Now? It all feels like ancient history.

The Titans’ 19-10 victory over the Colts on Sunday gave them their fifth consecutive victory over the division rivals from Indianapolis and further solidifies the Colts’ recent position as second-best in the division. The Colts haven’t won the AFC South since 2014 – former quarterback Andrew Luck’s third season. Meanwhile, the Titans have won two consecutive titles and now are in pole position after seven weeks of this season.

And the Titans’ latest win over the Colts highlights why the teams have been on their respective paths: The Titans might’ve made fewer plays, but they also, per usual, made fewer mistakes. It’s what has set the Titans apart under coach Mike Vrabel, even allowing them to win 12 games in 2021 when All-Pro running back Derrick Henry missed nine regular-season games with a foot injury.

The Titans are the team the Colts wish they could be.

“They don't beat themselves,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “That's been their whole M.O. They don't beat themselves. Every team's trying to play that same game. The saying is, ‘You're not going to win until you learn how not to lose.’”

Every time the teams play, this seems to be reinforced. In the past three meetings with the Titans, the Colts committed nine turnovers. The Colts on Sunday also contributed sloppy offensive-line play and poor execution on third downs (4 of 13, 31%).

There was obvious frustration in the Colts’ locker room Sunday as players realized much of the fault in the loss lied with them. The Colts’ defense held the Titans without a touchdown, continuing the unit’s recent stretch of solid performances. The Colts also outgained the Titans 292 yards to 254 yards.

What the Titans didn’t do was throw a pick-six like Colts quarterback Matt Ryan did in the second quarter, or fumble on a critical possession like Michael Pittman Jr. did in the fourth quarter.

“Self-inflicted wounds,” receiver Parris Campbell called them. “We have to score points. Have to. Against a team like that, you can’t make mistakes. Because with their offense, they’re not gonna lose the game. They’re offense didn’t do anything crazy. It was just Derrick Henry running the ball.

“You can’t beat yourself.”

The frustration with the predictable outcomes against the Titans is wearing on the Colts organization. Owner Jim Irsay held a press availability in August during which he emphasized the importance of the Colts reversing this trend against their primary division rival.

“It’s about Tennessee,” he said. “It’s about winning the division. It’s about going against those guys who have been very tough and do a great job there getting their players ready to play football in a tough, physical way. So, it’s always tough going against those guys, but we know that’s what we have to do. That’s what we have to overcome if we want to get where we want to get.”

An interesting subplot in this series is that Vrabel was a candidate for the Colts’ job when the Colts hired Reich in 2018. The Titans pounced and hired Vrabel before the Colts decided on how to proceed in their own search.

Now, after another Colts loss to Tennessee, Reich’s statements from last week seem almost prophetic.

The Colts, he said, have “played right into their hands. That’s what they’re expecting. We know this team is very disciplined. They take care of the ball, they create turnovers, they’re good up front… They’re really good and very well-coached.”

They’re also potentially on their way to another AFC South title.