The game that will determine the last Wild Card playoff berth in the AFC is played tonight when the Tennessee Titans host the Indianapolis Colts. Behind Andrew Luck, the Colts have turned a 1 and 5 start into a possible playoff berth after winning 8 of their last nine games. But, they need one more to advance.
With first-year head coaches on each of the sidelines tonight, Frank Reich for the Colts and Mike Vrabel of the Titans, they look to join Chicago’s Matt Nagy, who also in his first year as an NFL head coach guided the Bears to the playoffs this season. It may be that Vrabel was coaching all week with veteran skill at getting his opponent to prepare for two quarterbacks.
Titans starting quarterback Marcus Mariota was knocked out of last week’s game against the Washington Redskins and appeared doubtful for today. But, the Titans had him take some snaps on Thursday and dangled the possibility of him playing today. Even the point spread, which is most often the best indicator on who is and isn’t going to play, took a dip from the Colts being favored by 3½ points to Indianapolis by 3 points. Then, this morning, with the news Mariota would not start, the line rose to the Colts favored by 4½ points.
Coaches don’t know this, but the trade off of having a dinged quarterback playing in place of a healthy backup is almost always a bad idea. With the backup, like Blaine Gabbert today for the Titans, you get a motivated team looking to compensate for the loss of their starter and the benefit on the point spread. The combination of a healthy signal caller, particularly with a veteran backup with enough skills to succeed in the right spot, like Gabbert, and a generous point spread offers the team needing to overcome the loss of their starting quarterback a significant edge.
Had Mariota been able to go today, the line on this game would have been below a field goal, now it is up to 4½ points and may go higher before kickoff.
The Colts surge in the standings after a rough start is a tribute to Luck, Reich and the improved Indianapolis defense. No matter how many points Luck was going to be able to manage on offense, the fears coming into this season was that the Colts defense was simply going to give up more.
It started that way, with Indianapolis allowing more than 30 points in four of their first six games, all which resulted in Indianapolis losses. Yet, during the Colts win streak, they have held opponents to less than 30 points in every game, less than 20 four times and twice limited opponents to a single digit.
Tonight, they expect to travel into Music City and come out whistling a happy tune with a playoff berth in hand.
Although, my numbers indicate that a Titans team at home against a division opponent that beat them earlier this season, 38-10, has a solid advantage with a backup quarterback and bloated point spread.
The Colts have made a valiant effort to get into position to earn a playoff date after such a horrible start to their season. But the Titans are in a better spot to grab that final Wild Card berth with a home win tonight.
Qoxhi Picks: Tennessee Titans (+5) over Indianapolis Colts