A new chapter in the Colts-Titans rivalry was waiting to be written. But the Tennessee Titans ran out of ink.
A final two-minute Titans drive veered off-kilter as a fourth-down play ended in a chaotic fumble that allowed the Indianapolis Colts to hold on for a 22-20 victory Sunday at LP Field.
The Titans, looking to defeat the Colts for a second straight time dating to last season, faced fourth-and-4 from the Indianapolis 47, needing approximately 12 yards to get to the of Rob Bironas’ range for a potential game-winning field goal attempt.
But instead of heroics, the Colts pressured quarterback Vince Young as the pocket collapsed, forcing the Titans quarterback to lateral desperately to guard Jacob Bell, whose own lateral was eventually recovered by Indy’s Darrell Reid, snuffing out Tennessee’s chance for a last-gasp victory, similar to the way Bironas had beaten the Colts with a 60-yard field goal late last year.
“At the end of the game, when the ball is in Vince Young’s hands, everybody feels like we’re going to win the game. We were just waiting for something magical to happen,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said.
On Sunday, the final bit of magic belonged to the Colts, who withstood the Titans’ best punches to come away with an AFC South victory to move to 2-0 on the young season, leaving Tennessee at 1-1.
The Titans faced an uphill climb for much of the game, beginning with a failed fourth-and-1 attempt at the Colts 44 that soon turned into an Indianapolis touchdown march and a 6-0 lead. Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri had the first error of what would be an uncharacteristically troubling day for him, having the extra point blocked by Vanden Bosch.
The Colts continued to maintain the lead, adding a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Dallas Clark of 22 yards and a 22-yard Vinatieri field goal on the final play of the half to push the edge to 16-6.
For the Titans, their offense had seen a measure of success in the first half, but much like they did against Jacksonville in their season opener, Tennessee sputtered in the red zone and came away with just two Bironas field goals of 30 and 36 yards.
“It’s always discouraging when you get to the red zone and you only get three points,” running back LenDale White said. “When we get down there, we want to score seven. The more points you put up against this team, the better off you’ll be. When we get down there, we want to score seven.”
While the offense was trying to gather itself, the Tennessee defense was executing its game plan to near perfection in the second half, getting just enough big plays to thwart Peyton Manning’s efforts and force the Colts to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
In the third quarter, the Colts managed a 39-yard field goal by Vinatieri that pushed the edge to 19-6 and seemingly put enough distance between themselves and the Titans for a measure of comfort.
That comfort didn’t last long, however, as the Titans downed a Craig Hentrich punt at the 1, and on third down, got strong pressure from Vanden Bosch on Manning in the end zone, forcing an interception by Cortland Finnegan.
“You have to have that to put pressure to cause bad routes or bad throws. I was just in a zone drop on the interception, and got a great jam re-route on the receiver by our linebacker and gave me a great chance to make a play on the ball,” Finnegan said.
The cornerback took his first career pick back to the 15-yard line, and from there White iced the short-field drive with a 3-yard run that cut the margin to 19-13.
Indy answered with another Vinatieri field goal that made the game a two-score game again, but just barely. Vanden Bosch again got his hand on the kick, only to have the partially blocked ball hit the crossbar and bounce just over the goalpost.
“We blocked that second field goal, and it still went through the uprights. I got both of them. The second one actually hit square on my palm. I didn’t think there was any way it could have gone through,” said Vanden Bosch, who actually celebrated the block momentarily until discovering that it went through the uprights.
Tennessee continued to battle, and it appeared that magic that carried the Titans through much of the second half of the season in 2006 might have resurfaced just in time to pull out a miracle win. A Chris Davis fumble led to a 36-yard Vinatieri field goal try, but the ball sailed wide left, giving Tennessee new life with 12:30 remaining.
Young calmly marched the Titans downfield, and capped the 11-play, 74-yard march with a 1-yard TD strike to Roydell Williams, who enjoyed his best game as a Titan with four receptions for 72 yards.
The Colts had an opportunity to seal the game in the final two minutes, but two incompletions and a sack of Manning from Vanden Bosch inside two minutes gave the ball back to Young and the offense with the chance for some late heroics. That sack with 1:46 to play took the Colts out of field goal range and forced a punt. For Vanden Bosch, it was a called shot.
“That sack was a big play. It couldn’t have been drawn up any better,” Vanden Bosch said. “We had a little time there because of the timeout, and I turned to Cortland Finnegan and said, ‘I hope you TiVoed SportsCenter, because this play is going to be on it.’ He came back to me on the sideline and said, ‘You called it.’ That’s what I’m here for. That’s what we as defensive linemen feel we need to do when the opportunity is presented is make big plays. And it was time for somebody to make a big play.”
When it came time for the offense to answer with big plays to pull the game out, Young and the Titans could not answer, falling two points short.
“I really feel like we played a good game,” said Young, who completed 17 of 27 for 184 yards. “We played a good game; we’ve just got to finish. We can’t do nothing about it. I wish we could. Four quarters, and it’s over. 22-20 Titans lose. Now it’s time for us to go on and get ready for the big Monday night game [in New Orleans] against a team that’s going to be excited and pumped up at home.”
The loss was tough for the Titans to take, but they did find consolation in coming close to the defending Super Bowl champions, despite rushing for half as many yards (141) as the week before and allowing Manning to complete 28 of 42 passes for 312 yards.
“The only bad part is we didn’t get the win,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “But at the same time I think we showed a lot of people around the football world what this team is going to be about all year. The last two losses to the Colts have been by a combined three points. It shows that we’re right on their heels, and the rest of this football season we’ll be playing with more of a purpose than we probably started out with.”
Added defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, “The down years of the Titans are over. We’re going to come out here and we’re going to play. We’ve got a lot of heart. We’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody, even the world champs.”