Philip Rivers made some history and the Indianapolis Colts reaffirmed their status as AFC contenders on Thursday night. An all-around excellent showing in all three facets carried the Colts past the Tennessee Titans for a 34-17 win on Thursday Night Football.
1) Philip Rivers needed to be at his best on Thursday. The Colts' top-ranked defense needed to play up to its acclaim. Indy's running game had to show something. At the conclusion of Thursday night, cliched as it may be, the Colts earned a team win over the Titans and emerged from the Week 10 opener sharing the top spot in the AFC South and looking like a complete team. Following a stunning scoring march on the Titans' opening drive, Indy's defense stood up to the best intentions of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. Rivers bounced back from a dreadful showing the previous week. Nyheim Hines was stellar. And the Colts are a first-place team and looked every bit like it. Offense, defense and the kicking game provided highlights for the Colts (6-3) and lowlights just the same for the Titans (6-3). There are still seven games to play for each of these squads (with a rematch in 17 days included among them), but the Colts posted an important and emphatic victory, announcing themselves as frontrunners in their division and postseason players if they bring their 'A' game, which they most certainly did on this occasion.
2) Rivers was able to pass Dan Marino for fifth all-time on the career passing list and was just as importantly (in the here and now, at least) able to captain his Colts past the Titans. Rivers has struggled plenty this season, but also had his share of good games. This was one of the good ones. On the heels of a dreadful showing against the Ravens in which the Rivers-led offense tallied a season-low 10 points, the Colts offense looked as good as it has all season and Rivers was a driving force behind that. The Colts offense was unpredictable on Thursday, with five players notching carries, eight catching balls from Rivers and two guys lining up at QB as Jacoby Brissett had a cameo when he scored on a QB sneak to seal the game in the fourth quarter. But the offense was led and the tone was set by Rivers, who was as efficient as he's been all year, completing 29 of 39 passes for 308 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. As Rivers achieved a career hallmark, he also looked exactly like the quarterback many believed was the perfect fit for these Colts. On Thursday he was and if he can perform such as this on a consistent basis, it bodes wonderfully for Indy.
3) In emphatic nature, the Titans sped down the field to open the festivities, emerging with a 7-0 lead after Tannehill hit D'Onta Foreman on a play-action score from five yards. Following a fake-reverse kickoff return of 35 yards by Cameron Batson, it took Tennessee just six plays to travel 67 yards to six points. Tannehill was sensational at the onset, perfect on the scoring drive with four completions in as many attempts for 49 yards. But it was all a mirage. That Batson kickoff return hardly portended to what lay ahead with the Titans special teams and Tannehill's outstanding start gave way to a game in which he was battered and bruised and held in check. The Colts defense is the top-ranked defense in the league for a reason. Tennessee was held to its second-lowest scoring output in 2020 and corralled to the tune of 294 yards. Denico Autry had his fourth sack in the last three games, but it was the only sack for the Colts, who didn't force a turnover. No, the Darius Leonard-led defense didn't rack up appealing stats, it just played good, solid, disciplined and hard-hitting defense and proved crucial in the win as it's done all season long.
4) With the balance of power in the AFC South on the line in a back-and-forth affair, special teams loomed huge and that was most unfortunate for the Titans' kicking game. A horrendous 17-yard shank by punter Trevor Daniel set the Colts up on the Titans' 27-yard line en route to the go-ahead score in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Daniel's attempt was blocked by E.J. Speed and easily scooped and scored by T.J. Carrie. And then, for a third-straight Titans drive, the kicking game failed as Stephen Gostkowski missed right on a 44-yard field goal that would've drawn Tennessee within one score. With postseason aspirations at hand and first place to play for, success in all three facets was paramount. The Colts excelled on special teams Thursday and the Titans floundered, turning a nailbiter of a game into an easy finish for Indy.
5) Time after time since taking the starting reins for the Titans last season, Tannehill has done whatever was called on him and played whichever role was needed for Tennessee to come out on top. This season, he's had a quietly sensational campaign. However, Thursday was simply not his night. Though the Colts had just one sack, he was pressured plenty and hit hard. Tannehill was 4-for-4 to start the game on a scoring drive and struggled thereafter, the Titans offense following suit. After that opening salvo, Tannehill was 11-of-23 for 98 yards and no TDs. Tannehill has turned this franchise around, but Thursday was very much a big game for this team and this time around he came up short.
6) An all-of-a-sudden vaunted Colts defense has allowed only two 100-yard rushing efforts by running backs since 2018. Both have come from Henry. But it didn't matter on this night. Henry was often his scary self, bursting through for big gains and pounding away on defenders. He had a game-high 103 yards on 19 carries. Maybe the Titans should've run it with him more. He looked good as he most often does, but the Colts were able to withstand his chunk gains and his fierce runs. The reigning rushing champion found success on Thursday, the Colts defense just found more.
7) Though much of the criticism for any Indy offensive ills has been cast upon Rivers, the Colts running game has sputtered in large part and came into the game ranked 22nd. With Marlon Mack long ago done for the season, Indy has tried Jonathan Taylor, Hines and Jordan Wilkins with each of them finding success here and there, but struggles overall still abounding. Under the bright lights of prime time, though, Hines might well have secured his status as the Colts' No. 1 option in the backfield. He's most assuredly the most dynamic. Hines had 17 touches for 115 scrimmage yards and two total scores. He was a huge highlight and a game-changer for the Colts. T.Y. Hilton was back in the fold and Michael Pittman had a 100-yard game. For more reason than one, the Colts offense showed reason for optimism going forward, but Hines was the standout and should be the top option in the backfield from here on out.