What a great way to end the NFL regular-season: A must-win game between the Colts and Titans, with the winner making the postseason, and the loser going home.
While the Colts seemed intent on giving the game away much of the night, with a pick-six, a fumble and key penalities, they held on to defeat the Titans, 33-17.
It’s the Colts’ ninth win in 10 games, and they became only the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 1-5.
Coach Frank Reich and his red-hot Colts (10-6) will now face the Texans in Houston on Saturday, Jan. 5 at 4:35 ET.
Here are three takeaways from the Colts’ big win.
Andrew Luck is back among NFL’s elite quarterbacks
Back in June 2016, Andrew Luck was on top of the NFL world, signing a six-year, $140 million contract, at the time the richest deal in NFL history. But a lingering shoulder issue forced him to have surgery in early 2017, and he missed that entire 2017 season. Questions and rumors circulated about the severity of the injury and when he would return.
No one seemed to know what to expect coming into the 2018 campaign. Some observers were skeptical he’d return to his previous form.
They were right — in some ways, Luck was better than ever this season, as he showed once again Sunday night against the Titans. Luck completed 24-of-35 passes for 285 yards. Yes, he had a hideous pick-six in the second quarter he’d like to have back, but he also connected on three touchdown passes, including this precise, roll-out strike to Dontrelle Inman to open the scoring.
Andrew Luck rolling out to his left is a thing of beauty.
— NFL (@NFL) December 31, 2018
Statistically speaking, this might have been Luck’s finest year. He set career highs in completion percentage and quarterback rating, and had his second-best season in terms of yards and touchdowns. The offense hummed under his leadership, leading the league in third-down conversion percentage.
If Luck can keep playing at this level against the Texans, the Colts will be a tough underdog to shake.
Underrated Colts defense could be key in the postseason
The Colts defense was a revolving door early in the season.
It’s one thing to give up 38 points to the Patriots and 37 to the Texans, but when you give up 42 points to the Jets, that’s a red flag. But the Colts have gotten progressively better on defense as the season has gone on, and they stepped up against the Titans, as rookie linebacker Darius Leonard shows here with the pick.
— NFL (@NFL) December 31, 2018
The overall D stats are skewed by the disastrous first half of the season, but Indy’s defense is sneaky good. It came into the day ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt. That tighter defense deserves much of the credit for the team winning nine of its past 10 games. Leonard (who had a team-leading eight tackles and that interception Sunday) and his fellow Colts defenders are not well-known, but they could be the key for Indy in the postseason.
Where do the Titans go from here?
Tennessee finishes with a 9-7 record. There are some questions surrounding the team, namely, will quarterback Marcus Mariota ever get through a full season healthy? He has yet to play a full 16 games in four seasons, and watched again Sunday as Blaine Gabbert led the Titans’ offense.
Tennessee exercised the fifth-year option on Mariota’s contract earlier this year to keep him through the 2019 season, but some question whether he’s the long-term answer. Elsewhere on offense, running back Derrick Henry was a revelation in recent weeks, going from an above-average back to one of the most explosive power runners in the NFL. He had 93 yards rushing against the Colts, but it remains to be seen if the last few games are an aberration or the new normal for the former Heisman winner.
On defense, it’s hard to find fault with a unit that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed per game (18.0) entering Week 17. They were especially tough against the pass. But going forward, coach Mike Vrabel and the Titans really need Mariota to stay healthy and take the next step in his development as a franchise quarterback. It would be no surprise to see this team challenge again for the AFC South title again next season.