On Thursday night in the closest thing to a must-win regular-season game Manning has played in years, the artistry was back. Manning played with all the poise, confidence and, most important, passing precision that has defined his career. Manning masterfully took the Colts to a 21-0 lead they would not relinquish, hitting every throw in the book and converting six of his first seven third-down situations.
For the game, Manning finished 25-of-35 for 319-yards and a pair of touchdowns. But perhaps the play that best exemplified Manning's trademark management was a 4th-and-4 running play he called when the Titans drew within 10 points in the fourth-quarter. When he saw the Titans defense in a two-deep zone, rather than force a throw, Manning checked to a handoff to Javarris James, who converted the first down.
But they still lost. The 30-28 final didn't indicate how much the Titans barely were in it. They still committed foolish mistakes in every facet of the game -- getting caught out of position defensively, turning the ball over, dropping balls or stopping themselves offensively, committing a huge high-snap error in special teams and committing penalties on both sides of the ball.
Clearly, Titans owner Bud Adams has some serious decisions to make in what will be a long offseason. Has the Titans' meltdown come from Jeff Fisher losing the team? Bad coaching? Dissension in the locker room caused by Vince Young's immaturity and lack of leadership? Or is it as simple as a bad mix of overmatched personnel?
The Colts churned out just 87 rushing yards against a good defense, but most every one was huge. The embattled Manning was a better quarterback because Javarris James and Donald Brown picked up key yardage between the tackles early, opening up play-action that led to Manning's big night.
The Colts could have used more in the fourth-quarter, but James and Brown accounted for two key third-down conversions, a rushing touchdown, some big runs early in the third-quarter that set up big plays to Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon and perhaps the biggest moment of the night. It was James who converted on fourth down behind left tackle Jeff Linkenbach, setting up a big field-goal.
But that wasn't nearly as bad as Cecil's defense twice getting caught looking and playing badly. On Manning's touchdown toss to Pierre Garcon that made it 21-0, the Titans didn't seem to know if they were in a man or two-deep zone. Then in the fourth quarter, poor tackling on a short pass to Garcon led to a 43-yarder that meant the eventual winning points and effectively sealed the Titans' season.
Just when you thought it was all over for Indy, the club is still the driver's seat. By winning out, the Colts are in. And they get Jacksonville at home on a few extra days of rest. Their running game showed signs of life against the Titans. They're getting healthier. The defense made a few key stops and they still have the most clutch kicker in football, perhaps, in Adam Vinatieri, who iced this one with a 47-yarder on a blustery night. It's probably not a wise move to bet against the Colts just yet.