Maybe it won’t be a knockout punch, but at the very least a Tennessee Titans victory tonight would have the Indianapolis Colts on the canvas with the ref counting over them.
The 6-0 Titans enter their Monday night showdown with their chief AFC South rival with a three-game lead over the Colts, who have won the division five years in a row.
A victory for Tennessee would put the Titans clearly in the driver’s seat where the Colts are concerned. If the Titans get to 7-0 and drop the Colts to 3-4 in the process, it would mean that if Tennessee simply finished the year 5-4 that Indy would have to run the table to catch them.
The Colts, 3-3 and smarting from a 34-14 hammering at Green Bay, come in with plenty of injuries and issues.
Peyton Manning might not be 100 percent recovered from two preseason knee surgeries. His timing with his receivers might not by synched up as well as the Colts would like. The offensive line has been beset by injuries and the inexperience of having two rookie guards of late. Add to that the fact that running back Joseph Addai is likely out with a hamstring injury and defensive sparkplug Bob Sanders is expected to miss another game with his ankle injury, and the Colts look to be in dire straits.
And that is precisely the reason, plus the glare of the Monday Night Football spotlight, that the Titans know they will get the Colts’ best shot tonight at LP Field.
“They’re going to come in here ready to play,” quarterback Kerry Collins said. “Peyton’s going to have them ready. I’m sure coming off that loss last week, they’re going to be even more hungry.”
The Colts themselves admit the game is pretty much a must-win situation for them if they are to entertain anything more than wild-card hopes in 2008.
“I think it’s a must-win to win the division,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “We’ve been in this situation before with the shoe on the other foot where we played Tennessee or Jacksonville with a two- or three-game lead saying, ‘Hey, we can slam the door on them.’ I’m sure that’s what Jeff [Fisher] is saying to his team.
“They’ve got a chance to slam the door on us and that’s the way we’re looking at it. The season won’t be over if we don’t get a win. Obviously, wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl two out of the last three years so it’s certainly not a season-ending game, but in terms of winning the division I think that’s the reality of it.”
Manning wouldn’t use the term “must win,” but inferred as much in his remarks this week.
“It's certainly an important game because it’s a division game and they are the leaders in the division,” Manning said. “You certainly don’t want to get too far behind in the division. Like I said, I don’t really use those terms. But I know it’s important. It’s a game we need to play well in if we’re going to have a chance.”
For the Titans’ part, Fisher has tried to temper the talk of putting the division away at the halfway mark, saying, “We’re not at that point in the season yet, what we’re trying to do is build wins. Those things become important once you have a few games left.”
Titans players, though, know what is at stake if they can seal the deal with a win over an Indianapolis team that has won its past seven appearances on Monday Night Football.
Guard Jake Scott, who came over to the Titans from the Colts, knows full well what the Titans can do with a victory. As an ex-Colt, he has seen this vantage point many times over the years from an Indianapolis perspective.
“It’s a division game. It’s bigger from that standpoint than going against my old team,” Scott said. “We have a chance Monday night to really for the most part put them out of the division race. We need to do that. With a chance to do that, we need to take advantage of that.”
That said, Scott says don’t expect the Colts to go down without a major fight.
“We can’t expect them to come in here and play terrible and just lay down. They’re not going to do that,” Scott said. “They’ve got a good bunch of coaches and a lot of guys with good character on that team. They’re going to prepare this week and be ready to go on Monday night.”
What to watch for on offense: The Titans will want to run the football with Chris Johnson and LenDale White against a Colts defense that ranks 29th against the run. The Colts are likely to be without Bob Sanders, making stopping the run a tougher task. The Titans must not make mistakes and must get touchdowns in the red zone as they have done through six games.
What to watch for on defense: The defensive line had a Peyton Manning Fathead placed on its meeting room wall to remind them they must pressure the Colts quarterback. Tennessee has just 11 sacks in 13 career games against Manning, and must take advantage of his gimpy knee to pressure him.
Worth noting: The Titans should get Kyle Vanden Bosch back, but he might not be able to give them as many snaps as usual because of a groin injury. Expect Vanden Bosch to play, though Dave Ball might sneak in for a few plays to spell him.
Prediction: The Titans have waited nearly four years for a Monday night game at home, and should make the most of it. Titans 24, Colts 21.