Schedule favors Colts, not Titans, for playoff spot in loaded AFC

INDIANAPOLIS -- The path to the AFC South title -- and an automatic playoff spot as a first-round host -- is right there for the Indianapolis Colts. That seemed improbable earlier in the season, when quarterback Philip Rivers was making costly mistakes in losses to Jacksonville and Cleveland.

But the Colts (6-3), in the second game of a four-game gauntlet in the middle of their 2020 schedule, went on the road and beat Tennessee (6-3) to take over the top spot in the division last week.

Are the Colts the clear-cut favorites to win the division? Far from it.

But what the Colts have in their favor is the schedule. Both teams have four of their remaining seven games against teams currently with a winning record. The difference between the two teams is that the Titans have to play five of their final seven games on the road, including a road game in frigid Green Bay in December.

Simply put: The Colts will only have themselves to blame if they don’t win the division.

Winning the division to secure the automatic playoff berth might end up being Indianapolis' best chance at making the postseason because the AFC is packed like a can of sardines. There are nine teams with at least six victories. That marks the first time that one conference has had at least nine teams with six victories through Week 10 since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

That means falling out of first place could put a significant damper on making the playoffs. The Colts and Titans have identical 6-3 records, but the Titans are currently on the outside looking in at the playoff race at the No. 9 seed, based on tiebreakers. The top seven teams from each conference make the playoffs. The Steelers (9-0), Dolphins (6-3) and Chiefs (8-1) are all on winning streaks of four games or longer.

The Colts, as they’ve done since Day 1 of coach Frank Reich’s arrival in the winter of 2018, aren’t getting caught up with being in first place in the division or that the schedule -- on paper -- gives them an advantage over the Titans.

“It would be disingenuous to say that you don’t look at the standings and see how crowded it is up there in the AFC and see what’s going on,” Reich said. “I just can’t allow that, and we just can’t allow that to dictate us or get you in a certain kind of mindset."

The toughest remaining games for the Colts are against Green Bay (7-2) this Sunday in Indianapolis, at home against Tennessee (6-3) in Week 12 and at Las Vegas (6-3) and at Pittsburgh (9-0) in December. The other three games are against Jacksonville and Houston twice. The Jaguars and Texans are a combined 3-15 this season.

Green Bay has a top-10 offense (395.8 yards a game) and is third in scoring (30.8 points a game) with future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers leading the way. The Packers, though, have beaten only one team that currently has a winning record this season: New Orleans.

"The way he still moves and his arm talent is still awesome and great where it’s always been," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "It’s a big challenge for us. But instincts are definitely there. He seems to have eyes in the back of his head to be able to escape a lot of rush. Instincts is definitely one of the words you can use to describe him.”

A game that could play a factor in where the Colts finish is their Week 16 contest at Pittsburgh. The Steelers might have the AFC North and homefield advantage in the playoffs wrapped up by then, but that won't mean anything for Indianapolis, especially when you consider they've lost five straight to Pittsburgh.

"I don’t think there is any productivity to playing that game as far as looking at the schedule, who plays who, trying to project out -- that’s all a waste of emotional energy," Reich said. "That’s all a waste as far as internally. Now it’s great if you’re a fan. It’s great if you’re in the media. I’d be spending all my time doing that if I was in your position. That’s the fun part of it, right? That’s a blast. I can just tell you from a coaching and a playing perspective, it has zero productivity to it. All that matters is the Green Bay Packers and we have to win the next game.”