On Colts' off day, Titans can't turn it on at end
The Colts didn't play their best, but they still found a way to beat AFC South rival Tennessee, John Clayton writes.
NASHVILLE, Tenn -- When you think Super Bowl champion Colts, what comes to mind? Reliable kicker? Productive veteran receiver? Solid protection? Mistake-proof star QB? On most Sundays, you'd be correct. But not this Sunday, not against the Tennessee Titans.
Consider this rundown of some very un-Colt-like play:
• Adam Vinatieri, the league's best clutch kicker, had an extra point blocked, missed a 36-yard field goal and had a 20-yarder bounce over the crossbar.
• The interior of the Colts' offensive line broke down for two sacks and a few uncharacteristic pressures.
• Marvin Harrison drew single coverage on two key plays but didn't come up with the ball.
• Peyton Manning threw a rare third-quarter interception with a 13-point lead, and he didn't use a timeout at the end of the first half, forcing the Colts to settle for a field goal.
So what might have been a blowout turned out to be a 22-20 heart-stopper that left the Titans feeling as though they should have won. Tennessee was a first down away from getting a chance at a winning field goal but couldn't close the deal. Titans quarterback Vince Young was so mad after being stopped for a 6-yard loss on fourth down on the next-to-last play that he threw his helmet to the ground, ripped off his shoulder pads and didn't say a word to anyone coming off the field.
"Division games on the road, you've got to find a way to put these games away," Manning said. "We hurt ourselves. We had a chance to hopefully put them away and put the game out of reach, but we didn't do as good a job as we wanted."
Like all Super Bowl champs, the Colts learned a valuable lesson. Super Bowls are played in February and mean nothing in the fall. Manning breezed down the field for a game-opening 55-yard touchdown drive, but there was no confetti and no celebration videos were being shot. This game -- and probably every game -- is going to be more of a challenge to the Colts because every opponent has extra inspiration to beat the champs.
"We've got a fairly new team out there," Manning said. "Some of our players from last year are playing on the Titans. It's kind of a new team, trying to establish our identity through the season."
It seems as though everywhere the Colts look there is a former teammate with a Super Bowl ring in a bank vault. In the opener against the Saints, Manning beat former Colts starting cornerback Jason David for three touchdowns. Four plays into Sunday's game, former Colts corner Nick Harper gave Harrison a little bit too much room in zone coverage, allowing the All-Pro to catch a 37-yard pass to set up a touchdown. In the second quarter, tight end Dallas Clark got behind former Colts linebacker David Thornton for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
But Tennessee stuck to its plan of keeping the score close until the end. Manning threw for 312 yards, but it was one of his quietest 300-yard games ever. The Colts got inside the Titans' 20-yard line five times and came up with only one red zone touchdown.
"Our plan inside the building this week and on the practice field was to play this game in a way that we would give ourselves a chance to win at the end," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. " Then you have the disappointment of taking a team through a week and through 59 minutes of managing a game to the point where you have a chance to win the game and you don't."
On the positive side for Indianapolis, it won a physical game against one of the league's best running teams. That will send a message around the league that the Colts might have found an answer to the formula for beating them in 2006.
Despite the loss of outside linebackers Rob Morris (ribs) and Freddie Keiaho (inactive list, dislocated right elbow), the Colts held LenDale White and Chris Brown to a combined 98 yards on 27 carries, good numbers against an offensive line that's one of the best in football. The reason for the success is the improved play at defensive tackle by Raheem Brock and rookie Ed Johnson, plus a secondary that loves to come up to stop the run.
"I think we have the ability to be really good," Tony Dungy said of his secondary. "We have physical guys out there. They play hard. They listen. We're short on experience right now."
Safety Bob Sanders, the senior member of the secondary, is only 26. Like Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, he's everywhere. He had 11 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks. To stop the Titans, Sanders lined up like a fourth linebacker, pulling the Colts out of their Cover 2 and into more man-to-man situations. The strategy worked.
"We knew they were going to run the ball in certain situations," Sanders said. "My thing was to line up and stop the run. For the most part, I think we did that."
But the Colts let the Titans hang in this game. Indianapolis jumped to a 19-6 lead in the third quarter, but Manning threw an interception on a pass intended for Reggie Wayne. Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch hit Manning in the end zone as he released the pass, and Cortland Finnegan got the interception, setting up White's 3-yard touchdown run three plays later.
The Titans trimmed the deficit to two points with a 74-yard, fourth-quarter drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown reception by Roydell Williams. With the Colts leading 22-20, Young got the ball back in his hands at his 20 with just 97 seconds left. Six plays later, the drive was stopped at Indianapolis' 47.
"We just needed to get the first down," a frustrated Young said. "That's all we needed to do. I really felt like [kicker] Rob Bironas would finish it, but we didn't get that first down."
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.