Colts all but clinch AFC South crown with rapid rally past Tennessee
For about two quarters Thursday night, the Titans appeared primed to make a race of the AFC South. And then, over the course of 25 plays, it was all over.
It will be at least a few weeks until the Colts clinch the division officially, but that's a mere formality now thanks to their 30-27 win over Tennessee
The Titans, with Ryan Fitzpatrick in for an injured Jake Locker at QB, actually led 17-3 late in the first half. By the time their offense took the field again after a Rob Bironas field goal, Indianapolis had grabbed a 20-17 edge, via two long drives and a costly fumble by Tennessee kick returner Devon Wylie. The Colts ran 24 plays in a row and gained a first down via pass interference on a 25th.
The blitzkrieg ate up the final 2:32 of the second quarter and the first seven-plus minutes of the third. An impressive, sudden turn of events that essentially cemented the Colts' first AFC South title since 2010.
"Great team victory, on the road, for a division game," Andrew Luck said. "We know Tennessee's always salty, always tough, so we're fortunate and happy to get a win."
Luck completed 12 passes during that 17-point spurt -- more than half of the 23 he hit on the night. And he gave Indianapolis its first lead of the night with his leg, scrapping a quick pass attempt to Griff Whalen in favor of an 11-yard TD scramble up the middle.
He finished the night with 232 yards passing, 31 rushing (nine more than Trent Richardson, for what it's worth) and recorded yet another come-from-behind victory.
"Andrew's an amazing guy to play with," Indianapolis tight end Coby Fleener told the NFL Network's Alex Flanagan. Fleener finished with career highs in catches (eight) and yards (107). "He's an awesome leader and an awesome player. I'm at a loss for words for how good he is."
The Colts have trailed now in six of their seven victories, so their penchant for slow starts warrants some concern. Their ability to tranquilly regroup -- last week's embarrassing 30-point home loss to St. Louis aside -- has allowed them to separate from the pack in the AFC South.
"I think at the end of the day winning is what matters," Luck said. "We're fortunate in this game to survive our mistakes. We know that's gotta be fixed and we'll work on it in practice. "
The subplot in all of the Colts' 2013 success is that high-profile trade for running back Trent Richardson. He rushed for 22 yards and hauled in five receptions, but he also took a backseat to 2009 first-round pick Donald Brown.
For the first time in his NFL career, Brown found the end zone twice. He capped Indianapolis' initial drive after halftime with a six-yard TD scamper, then later cemented the victory by blasting through the line on an 11-yard score. Brown's second-half eruption offset the hot start pieced together by Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who had 62 yards and two TDs of his own in the first quarter.
More than that, Brown's performance restored balance to an Indianapolis offense that has been unable to churn out much of anything on the ground, despite going all-in on that Richardson deal.
"I think Trent does just as wonderful a job, something that's how the chips fall," said Luck of Brown taking the reins in Tennessee. "Donald's a great professional, great teammate, great person, so I'm happy he played this well."
If the Colts can win in Arizona next Sunday, they'll have a chance to lock up the division in two weeks when the Titans visit Indianapolis. That's a dramatic reversal from where things would have been if Tennessee had converted its early momentum Thursday into a victory. In that scenario, the Colts' AFC South lead would have been trimmed to one game, with that Week 13 rematch looming.
The Titans had everything headed in the right direction for a long while, too. In truth, the Colts appeared to be on the verge of a full meltdown in the first half, highlighted by a stretch in which they took personal foul penalties on three straight plays (the most egregious being Erik Walden's headbutt of Delanie Walker).
But it was right as Tennessee pushed Indianapolis to the brink that the Colts began their slow burn back.
"I think everything went to game plan for us ... no, I'm just kidding," Fleener joked on the NFL Network's postgame show. "Obviously, starting like that is all too familiar ... but we're happy to have a win, regardless."
Now, Indianapolis can set its sights on bigger game, such as catching New England for a playoff bye. Even if that's not in the cards, only a catastrophic collapse would keep the Colts from a division crown and at least one home playoff game.
This game was far from a perfect one for the likely AFC South champs. Down the line, when the postseason rolls around, the Colts will need to find a way to perform at their highest level for a full 60 minutes. Thursday, though, they needed only 25 plays to drop the hammer.