The Colts may have beaten the Titans for the eighth straight time with Sunday afternoon's 35–33 win, but their first victory of the season did not lack for the unexpected. Tennessee rookie Marcus Mariota came into his home debut with all the momentum on his side: His six touchdown passes and zero interceptions through two weeks made for one of the best starts for a rookie quarterback in NFL history. The Colts had been a complete puzzle through two weeks, deservedly winless and battling reports of dysfunction all the way up to the highest floors of the front office.
For a while, it looked as if the Titans would be a remedy to everything that ailed the Colts, who jumped out to a 14–0 lead early in the second quarter after cornerback Dwight Lowery returned the first pick of Mariota's young career 69 yards for a touchdown.
But just when you thought the 2014 Colts were back, all the same things started going wrong. Andrew Luck began hurrying his throws again, his receivers weren't making plays, the offensive line was falling apart, and the defense didn't step up. Tennessee scored 27 unanswered points to build a 13-point lead, capped by Ryan Succop's 21-yard field goal with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
From then on, Luck turned into his old self, taking the Colts on the kinds of drives this team has been looking for all season. With 12:20 left in the game, Luck staged a 12-play, 107-yard drive (two penalties set Indy back nine yards along the way) that ended with a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Phillip Dorsett.
Then with 6:09 left in the game, Lowery picked off Mariota again and returned the ball to the Titans' 11-yard line. Luck put the Colts back on top with a touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief, and Frank Gore scored on a run from six yards out on the next drive. Tennessee responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive but could not punch in a game-tying two-point conversion attempt in the final minute, and the Colts secured their first win of the 2015 campaign, probably salvaging their season in the process.
Three thoughts on how this game went the way it did:
1. Luck wasn't great, but he was good enough.
Luck entered Sunday with a league-high five interceptions, and it wasn't a case where some of those picks weren't earned. He had been jittery in the pocket, too quick with his reads and throws, and flat-out careless with the ball at times. There were instances when he was all of those things in Week 3, but Luck put it all back together with his team staring at an 0–3 start in the fourth quarter. The touchdown to Dorsett was a bullet downfield against the blitz, which has been Luck's nemesis so far this season. He still threw two picks and showed that he doesn't always understand when he should give up on a play, but with 18 completions on 30 attempts for 260 yards and two touchdowns, he at least hung in there. Luck and his offense have a lot of work to do before the Colts can be seen as contenders, but this win is a start. Gore also showed up with the type of performance the Colts were hoping for when they signed him this off-season, with 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
2. The Titans might want to work on their two-point playbook.
This was weird. With 51 seconds left, Tennessee was in position to tie things up with a two-point conversion after fullback Jalston Fowler rumbled in for a one-yard touchdown run. On Tennessee's first attempt, Colts cornerback Jalil Brown was busted for pass interference. It was the second time in three plays the Colts had been flagged for interference, and they seemed to be making it clear that with the Titans so close to the end zone, they would get as handsy as they needed to.
Perhaps with that in mind, the call on the second two-point attempt was to hand the ball to Fowler and see if he could bull his way in again. The Colts had it read all the way, and Fowler was backed up several yards and injured on the play. After three Luck kneel-downs, the game was over. It's easy to understand why Ken Whisenhunt and his coaching staff would go away from the pass, but when you have a quarterback who is an athletic marvel, who wouldn't you utilize his rushing abilities?
3. Mariota continues to impress, even as he gets a first-class NFL education.
Mariota finished with 27 completions on 44 attempts for 367 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, becoming the second quarterback in NFL history to throw a total of eight touchdown passes in his first three NFL games, joining Mark Rypien of the 1988 Redskins. Yes, he had his flawed moments, but he also proved to be unusually calm for a young quarterback. The pick-six to Lowery was awful (and his tackle attempt on the return was even worse), but the rookie came right back on the next drive with three straight completions, and on the drive after that, the Titans went 83 yards on 13 plays and capped things off with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright.
Mariota won't be perfect, but he's already proven that he's no system quarterback or flash in the pan. He's grown exponentially as a pure quarterback since his days at Oregon, and the sky appears to be the limit.