INDIANAPOLIS — A team built around a running back with sprinter’s speed should have known it was going to be a tough day after another track star sang and butchered the national anthem on Sunday.
Just after sprinter Charles Clark hit some sour notes on his Carl Lewis-esque attempt at The Star Spangled Banner, the Tennessee Titans went off key as well, falling 27-17 to the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Titans’ own speedster Chris Johnson fared much better than Clark, rushing for 113 yards on 27 carries, but the Colts defense kept the big plays bottled up, as Johnson’s longest run from scrimmage went for just 11 yards.
Still, the Titans had their chances to stay in the game, but like Clark’s singing performance in front of the Indy crowd, Tennessee went flat on too many red zone opportunities Sunday to have a chance to win.
Twice the Titans turned the ball over on downs in the second half deep in the Colts territory, missing on fourth-down passes each time, leaving the football at the 2 and the 14.
“The magic ran out on fourth down today,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “I was hoping it would carry over [from last week].”
Early in the game, plays were there to be made as well. But the Titans wound up settling for a 20-yard Rob Bironas field goal on their opening drive, and squandered a potential TD when Nate Washington dropped a perfect deep ball from Young on Tennessee’s third possession.
“We just didn’t finish,” said Young, who completed 24 of 43 throws for 241 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. “Definitely, I have respect for their defense, but we didn’t finish. Like I said all week, we have to finish and we have to score against a talented team like that.”
The Titans entered Sunday on a five-game winning streak and believing that a victory over the Colts could right all the early-season wrongs and propel them back into the thick of the AFC wild-card race.
“We gave them this win today. We didn’t play well at all,” Washington. “In order to be a playoff team in December, you can’t play like we played today. It all started with my drop. I take full responsibility.”
As it stands now, a 5-7 Tennessee team knows its postseason chances are on life-support with four games to play. The Titans’ only hope is to somehow win out and then hope for a Wall Street-style collapse from multiple teams ahead of them.
“We definitely knew coming back after the bye week that it was a super long shot to make the playoffs, and it was a 10-game season,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “We wanted to go undefeated in the 10-game season. We’re still playing our 10-game season, and right now, we’re 5-1, the way we look at it. After starting off 0-6 in the hole, you have to give yourself something else to play for. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t win, but we’re going to come back next week and the next four with the same fire.”
Sunday’s loss to the Colts was somewhat a microcosm of what has gone on for the Titans thus far in 2009 — a gigantic first-half deficit, caused in large part by their own mistakes, then chances to get back into the game, only to fall short.
“Any time you get down against them, you’ve got to put points on the board,” tight end Bo Scaife said. “We probably squandered two or three touchdowns that could have changed the game.”
The Colts, now winners of a record-tying 21 consecutive regular-season games, made it look easy on the opening drive of the game, as Peyton Manning marched them 75 yards on just five plays. Joseph Addai’s 8-yard run made the score 7-0.
Tennessee had a chance to answer, but could only muster Bironas’ field goal when the drive stalled at the Colts’ 2-yard line.
Manning and the Colts didn’t stall, however, scoring two second-quarter touchdowns to open up a 21-3 lead. The first came on Addai’s 1-yard run at the 11:42 mark of the second quarter, and the third came on Manning’s 4-yard throw to Austin Collie with 1:55 to play. That touchdown came courtesy of a Jacob Lacey interception, giving the Colts just 42 yards to travel to the end zone and make the score 21-3.
The Titans got up off the deck long enough to score on Young’s 6-yard slant in throw to Kenny Britt, but then committed more mistakes in the final 20 seconds after the TD that cut the lead to 21-10.
A pooch kick was fielded by Gijon Robinson and return to the Colts’ 37 yard line, giving with 17 seconds to play, giving Manning more than enough time and a short enough distance to get Matt Stover in field goal range. After that, Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown gave Colts guard Kyle DeVan a shove in the face mask, drawing a 15-yard penalty and making it easy for Indy to get in range, where Stover converted from 43 yards as the half expired.
That left the Titans with too big a deficit to come back from, 24-10, though they didn’t lack for opportunities to do so.
Tennessee took over at its own 42 in the third quarter after a Stover missed field goal, and marched as far as the Indianapolis 1 with first and goal before things began to unravel.
Young fumbled a snap, but recovered it for no gain, just before Eugene Amano was slapped with a holding penalty that put Tennessee back to the 11.
A 2-yard pass to Scaife just before Young’s 7-yard scramble set up the fateful fourth-down play, a tough fade pattern to Britt, who came down with the ball but not in bounds as Jerraud Powers pushed him to the white boundary while he was still in the air.
“I had an opportunity to get my feet in, but he just made a good play pushing me out of bounds before I had a chance to get my feet down,” Britt said.
There would be other missed opportunities for the Titans as well, as Young’s fourth-and-5 pass from the Indy 14 sailed over Lavelle Hawkins’ head, ending another march into the red zone.
From the rubble of that drive, the Colts put the game away going 69 yards in 15 plays and draining 7:23 off the clock. Stover’s 36-yard field goal with 3:14 to play made it 27-10.
That’s why a consolation touchdown of 17 yards from Young to Scaife and an onside kick recovery by Kevin Kaesviharn hurt even more — as it was too little, too late thanks to the Titans’ inability to find the right rhythm earlier in the game.
“It’s frustrating,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “We had our opportunities, but we just didn’t capitalize.”
A painful but familiar refrain for the Titans on Sunday.