The AFC South penthouse is getting a fresh coat of paint — in Tennessee Titans blue.
After Monday night’s 31-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, there is a decidedly lighter shade of blue dominating the division as the Titans improved to 7-0 and put four games between themselves and each of their three AFC South rivals.
The Titans scored 25 consecutive points and made two fourth-down stops in a second-half stretch of just under 15 minutes that turned a 14-6 deficit into a commanding 31-14 lead with 3:31 to play and coasted to the victory.
When it was over, the Titans weren’t shy about pointing out what looks like an inevitable end of the Colts’ five-year dominance of the division.
“The Colts are not the team to beat anymore. I think we made a statement within the division, and I think we have made a statement all year with our play. The Colts were the team to beat, and I think now, the Titans are the team to beat,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said.
The victory not only kept Tennessee as the league’s lone unbeaten team, but also served notice to the nation about a team that had been flying somewhat under the NFL radar despite its perfect start.
“It feels awesome to do that in front of a national audience,” fullback Ahmard Hall said of Tennessee’s lone scheduled primetime appearance this year. “They weren’t giving us any credit, so I mean if you do that and you beat the Colts decisively on a national stage, then you’ve proven it there.”
The Titans proved they could adjust to adversity in the third quarter after Peyton Manning had driven the Colts 64 yards on nine plays to open the second half. Manning hooked up with Dallas Clark from 19 yards away to put Indy up 14-6 and appeared to be taking control of the game.
However, the Titans came off the canvas and answered with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that LenDale White capped with a 1-yard touchdown run. The Titans then tied the game on Kerry Collins’ two-point conversion pass to fullback Ahmard Hall.
It was at that point the Titans began to assert control, beginning with linebacker Stephen Tulloch’s fourth-down stop of Dominic Rhodes at his own 47-yard line to stop the Colts ensuing drive.
“I just saw the ball carrier and just went in there and tried to make a play,” Tulloch said. “It was a good play for the team. It definitely turned things around.”
It turned things around, indeed, as Tennessee cashed in and claimed its first lead since 3-0 on Rob Bironas’ third-field goal of the game, this one from 48-yards away.
Tennessee’s defense answered again on the next series, making yet another fourth down stop as former Colt Nick Harper batted a fourth-and-2 Peyton Manning pass away from Marvin Harrison to give the Titans possession at their own 34-yard line.
“He took an outside release and I was over the top, and he just sat down real quick, and I jumped underneath,” Harper explained.
That stop by the defense started another Titans scoring drive, this one fueled by Collins and the Titans' passing game. The Colts had been daring Tennessee to throw the football much of the game, even using a four-linebacker set in an eight-man front for a good part of the game.
So the Titans took to the air with the payoff coming as Collins completed 6 of 8 throws on the drive for 55 yards. White capped the march with his second 1-yard TD run, his 10th touchdown of the season thus far.
“They gave us some different looks,” Collins said of the extra linebacker set. “We made some really good adjustments at halftime. That’s how it is when we play. It’s always a battle and we are fortunate to make the plays we did in the second half.”
Collins was again solid, managing the game and making enough plays to put points on the board as he completed 24 of 37 passes for 193 yards against a Colts defense that dared him to beat them. The passing attack helped offset a running game that managed just 88 yards on 31 carries.
“We just had to stay committed,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “They brought in that fourth linebacker and we had to throw the ball. We didn’t have a choice.”
The Titans weren’t through, even with a 10-point lead and only 4:37 to play, as Chris Hope picked off Peyton Manning for the second time in the game off a tipped pass to Dallas Clark, setting up Chris Johnson’s 16-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach.
When it was over, the Titans had plenty to celebrate, but also plenty of work left to be done with nine games still to play.
“Come tomorrow, we’re looking for 8-0,” receiver Justin McCareins said with Green Bay scheduled to visit on Sunday. “We’re going to continue to try and improve and put a perfect game together.”
And while many didn’t know a lot about the Titans before hand, the players admitted it was nice to finally get a bit acclaim in the national spotlight.
“It might not be flash and dash and spectacular or anything like that, but we play tough football,” Bulluck said. “We play tough up front. Offensively, we score when we need to. We’re a complete football team. We’re not a perfect football team, but we’re a complete football team.”