NASHVILLE — On Thursday night, the Tennessee Titans can take a big step toward winning the AFC South for the first time since 2008.
However, that requires beating the Indianapolis Colts, the division rivals who have tormented them most since NFL realignment in 2002, no matter the quarterback or the coach.
The Colts have won 13 of the 18 games played in the Titans' home stadium since 1999, dominating this series with first Peyton Manning and then Andrew Luck taking the snaps. Now it's Philip Rivers' turn, and the former Chargers star is 7-2 against Tennessee.
The Titans believe they have their quarterback to turn the tide. Ryan Tannehill is 1-0 against the Colts since becoming Tennessee's starter midway through the 2019 season.
"Obviously, division games are huge," Tannehill said. "Being at home, big opportunity on Thursday night, so we're looking forward to this one. I know we all want this really bad, as do they. But at the end of the day it's going to come down to who can go out and execute and make plays on Thursday night."
The Titans (6-2) currently sit atop the standings, and a win would give them a two-game lead with seven games to play. If Indianapolis coach Frank Reich improves to 4-1 against the Titans and coach Mike Vrabel, then his Colts (5-3) would have the head-to-head edge with a rematch on Nov. 29 in Indianapolis.
"There is no doubt it's a huge game," Reich said.
The Titans are coming off a 24-17 win over the Chicago Bears that ended a two-game skid, and they're 4-1 at home this season. Indianapolis lost 24-10 to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday after blowing a halftime lead.
Reich said the Titans have proven they know how to win games.
"That's what we really need to do," he added. "We need to prove that we can win these kinds of games against tough teams."
The Titans have slipped a bit offensively, though, after scoring at least 31 points in four straight games. They haven't topped 24 points in three straight games, and slow starts have been a challenge, with their only first-quarter points in that stretch a single field goal.
The Titans, who have averaged 29 points per game this season, still rank seventh in the league in scoring. Tannehill said the key is simply making the plays that are there off play action.
"We don't have to do anything special or crazy," he said, "but when we get opportunities, we have to be able to make those plays."
They'll face a defense headed in the right direction. The Colts turned in another strong performance by holding the Ravens almost 40% below their average rushing total while allowing just 266 total yards. However, it wasn't good enough to beat quarterback Lamar Jackson — the reigning league MVP — and linebacker Darius Leonard said his team gave up too many yards.
The player who stands out as the biggest test for the Indianapolis defense in Nashville is running back Derrick Henry, who led the NFL in rushing in 2019. In the Titans' two games against the Colts last year, Henry rushed for 231 yards and two touchdowns. He currently leads the AFC and is second in the NFL this season with 843 rushing yards.
"They are so run heavy, that when they go to play action and screens, they're so efficient," Leonard said. "That's what makes them so good. It's something you really don't want to see."
The Titans made a team-record 18 transactions last week — five players made their Tennessee debut Sunday — and the team keeps making moves, including adding long snapper Matt Orzech to the active roster after he cleared the COVID-19 protocol. The Titans have signed four players to the practice squad since Monday, and on Wednesday, they activated starting cornerback Adoree' Jackson from injured reserve but declared him out against Indianapolis.
Tennessee will be getting outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney back after he missed Sunday's game with an injured knee that kept him out of practice last week. He practiced Tuesday and Wednesday.