NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the AFC playoff race heats up, the Tennessee Titans can lean on Derrick Henry again to get them to the finish line. The Titans won five of their final six games last season to earn a wild-card bid, and Henry ran wild during that stretch -- rushing for 896 yards and 10 touchdowns.
This season, the Titans are one of four AFC teams with a 7-3 record and currently hold the fifth seed in the playoffs with six games left.
"We have that mindset that it's playoff football right now and have to be locked in every week," Henry said.
The next order at hand is facing a tough Indianapolis Colts team that is atop the AFC South. The Colts have adopted a bully-like approach under coach Frank Reich. The two teams mirror each other in terms of their approach to football.
"Us and the Titans are built very similarly with a similar philosophy," Reich said via conference call. "If you want to bring physicality to a team, it starts up front, on both sides of the ball. We place an emphasis on having that right demeanor and size/strength to play a physically dominating game. We have a ton of respect for the Titans, which makes for a great challenge on Sunday."
Indianapolis' defense has gotten better with the addition of All-Pro DeForest Buckner, who has settled in as the 3-technique. Reich pointed to the 3-technique as the essential cog of the defense and called Buckner an elite player who is disruptive against the run and pass.
But the Colts on Wednesday placed Buckner on the reserve/COVID-19 list. If he is unable to play Sunday, it would be a blow.
Buckner helps make it easier for linebackers such as All-Pro Darius Leonard and budding star Bobby Okereke to clean up against the run. Leonard earned Henry's respect from the battles they've had before Buckner got to the Colts.
"It's always great to go against Darius Leonard. I know he's going to play hard every down," Henry said. "He's the general of that defense and flies to the ball. He's an all-around great linebacker and one of the best in the league."
The Colts are allowing only 89.2 rushing yards per game, third best in the league. Henry is the only player to gain 100 or more yards against the Colts in the past 26 games. He has done it twice, including a 103-yard performance that came in a frustrating 34-17 loss at home to Indianapolis two weeks ago.
Can Henry do it a third time?
"We have to be physical, fast and have gap integrity, because if you don't, you will be exposed against this team," Reich said. "Henry has a rare combination of size, speed and strength. He has skills, vision and footwork, then he has great balance. He's the complete package as a running back ... He's the best in the league."
Last week, the Titans' were able to gain the upper hand in their 30-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens because Tennessee wore them down. Henry gained the majority (96 yards) of his 133 rushing yards in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Through 10 games, Henry's 229 rushing attempts are the most in the NFL. Henry's league-leading fourth-quarter totals include 59 carries, 419 yards and five rushing touchdowns -- which shows how he is a difference-maker at the end of games.
"He's been an outlier," Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. "He's in phenomenal shape. As the games and seasons have gotten going, this is where he usually picks up some steam, as he did the other day in Baltimore."
Tennessee outscored the Ravens 17-3 in the second half last week, but it didn't have the same success against the Colts two weeks ago in its loss, despite holding a 17-13 halftime lead. The second-half meltdown is fresh in coach Titans coach Mike Vrabel's mind. It was compounded after watching the Colts limit the Green Bay Packers to three points in the second half of Indianapolis' 34-31 win last week.
"They've outscored opponents 41-3 in the second half of the last two games, which included us," Vrabel said. "We weren't able to score in the second half. They aren't front-runners. They're going to compete and fight to finish throughout the game. We have to be strong throughout and be able to match their physicality and intensity, especially in the second half of the football game."
Getting Henry rolling is critical for the offense, but it's also important for Tennessee's defense -- especially when facing a gritty offense like Indianapolis' that tries to wear down opposing teams, much like the Titans do with Henry.
"[Henry running the ball] is a benefit. Ideally, it keeps us fresh and we're not having to go right back out there with just seconds coming off the clock," Tennessee outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen said. "It goes into our culture and how we're built, in terms of our mindset being able to run the ball and play defense."