A win and a miracle; that’s all the Colts need for playoff spot
The Indianapolis Colts have a chance at winning a third straight AFC South title, albeit a very unlikely one.
First, they need to figure out who they’re starting at quarterback.
With Matt Hasselbeck, Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley vying for nod, the Colts go for a ninth straight win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Indianapolis (7-8) is one game back of Houston for first place in the division. While a victory combined with a Texans’ loss to Jacksonville creates a tie in the standings, the Colts need seven other results to go their way in order to claim the tiebreaker for strength of schedule.
"I just know we are still alive," linebacker Robert Mathis told the team’s official website after last week’s 18-12 win at Miami, ending a three-game slide.
What the Colts don’t know is who’s starting under center. Andrew Luck was ruled out for a seventh straight game with a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle, while third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst landed on injured reserve Monday with a hamstring injury.
Hasselbeck is doubtful with an injured throwing shoulder, but he’s optimistic he can play after claiming that he feels better than expected. The 40-year-old is 5-3 as a starter, completing 60.9 percent of passes for 1,690 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
Indianapolis isn’t banking on Hasselbeck being able to go, signing Freeman and Lindley. Freeman hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL in over two years, while Lindley was a backup with Arizona from 2012-14.
"I was gearing up for the holidays in Kansas City and continuing to work out when they called," Freeman said. "That’s the thing with this game, when you’re a free agent you have to stay in shape and you have to be ready to go because you just never know."
Coach Chuck Pagano’s future is another mystery since his contract expires after the season. The Colts went 11-5 in each of his first three seasons and reached the AFC title game a year ago.
"I will fight my (behind) off to be the coach here," Pagano said.
He’s also going to need the offense to show some signs of life. It’s averaging 13.5 points and 255.0 yards over the last four games.
Pagano, though, may find some solace in the Colts winning 13 of their last 14 meetings with the Titans, including eight straight after a 35-33 win in Week 3.
Frank Gore ran for two touchdowns in that matchup, giving him five in three career meetings.
The only race Tennessee (3-12) is involved in has to do with the top pick in the 2016 draft. While the Titans own the same record as Cleveland, a loss at Indianapolis would give them the first selection for the first time since 1978 when they picked Earl Campbell as the Houston Oilers.
Marcus Mariota, the second overall pick this year, is out for the finale due to a sprained right knee as interim coach Mike Mularkey claimed he still wasn’t ready to return after sitting out last week’s 34-6 loss to Houston.
"It’s doing it the right way and being smart about it," Mularkey said. "We were hoping. We knew it was slim. He’s a pretty quick healer, but not the case for this one.
"He’d play if he could."
Zach Mettenberger will start in place of Mariota again. He’s 0-9 as a starter, losing three games this year while completing 60.7 percent of his passes for 592 yards with two touchdowns, four picks and a 65.2 passer rating.
Mettenberger connected on 27 of 51 passes for 234 yards with one TD and one interception last week while the Titans didn’t score until there was 1:31 remaining in the game.
"That’s my sole focus every week is to get the win," Mettenberger said, "and hopefully we play good enough football this week to get that."