INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts were excited, but not overly so. They smiled and patted each other on the back, but hardly lit victory cigars.
They didn’t seem to struggle with finding just the right tone in enjoying their first win of the season Sunday while keeping it in context too.
They were clearly pleased to know a bottoming-out season minus a contribution from Peyton Manning wouldn’t take them so far as just the second winless mark since the league started playing a 16-game regular season in 1978.
“It’s a great relief,” defensive end Robert Mathis said. “It just feels good to get a victory.”
“Nobody wants to go 0-16,” receiver Reggie Wayne said. “It was good for us to go out and get a win. It was great for us to win at home. Hopefully it’s contagious. Hopefully we can win these next two games which are division opponents and we’ll go out and have some good drinks at the end of the year and hope for a better one next year.”
The defense keyed the victory. It took the ball away from Tennessee three times, including a Jacob Lacey interception stolen from Chris Johnson that was returned 32 yards for a touchdown that made it 17-6. The Titans’ last five possessions from there ended like this: punt, fumble, interception, touchdown and turned over on downs.
The Titans certainly made a mighty contribution to the result. Starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said one big theme during the week was that a sack and a fumble caused by Dwight Freeney or Mathis would be one way to lose. So the game plan called for a lot of quick throws to make sure the ball was out of the quarterback’s hand early.
That was misguided. Most opponents this season diffused the pass rushing duo in a much more effective way: By taking a lead that made the Colts have to deal with the run rather than key on the pass, by forcing a struggling offense to try to find big plays to catch up and inevitably make mistakes.
The Colts came into the game as just the second team in league history to go eight full games without holding a lead. The Titans allowed them to move ahead 3-0 in the first quarter and 10-6 in the third. From there, Indianapolis built with a confidence rarely shown this season.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said the Colts were “making us throw the ball underneath.”
His team is hardly world beaters, but it’s been consistently better than the Colts this season and beat them 27-10 in Nashville on Oct. 30. A team with playoff possibilities against a winless one shouldn’t be dictated to. It should be dictating.
Instead, even though they weren’t necessarily big leads, the Colts thrived off of being ahead.
“You don’t have to gamble nearly as much, you don’t have to get into too many man coverage situations,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “You can make them just kind of dump the ball and drop it underneath and try to break down and tackle in bounds and keep that clock running.”
I think Colts vice chairman Bill Polian overstated when he said in the three weeks since defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired and replaced by linebacker coach Mike Murphy that Murphy and the defensive staff “got this team flying again.”
But the defensive tackles got a consistent push and the coverage of receivers and tight ends by an injury-depleted secondary was generally tight.
After it was over, the Titans talked of being lifeless from the start and the Colts talked of having some bounce.
“I never would have expected us to come out and look like they were the team that was going to the playoffs and we were the team that was 0-13,” Munchak said. “That can’t be.”
Now Munchak faces a decision on whether to stick with Hasselbeck or turn to rookie Jake Locker while the Colts turn their attention to their two other division opponents.
Wayne said it was a big deal not to get swept in the season series by Tennessee. The Colts have already lost to Houston and Jacksonville as well, and finish the season with rematches.
Can they find a couple more wins to savor? Can they find them with just 82 passing yards the way they found this one?
“It’s been a year since we’ve won,” Freeney said, exaggerating slightly. The Colts last won on Jan. 2.
“Regardless of whether it’s one or 10 or whatever, whenever you can win in this league, it means a lot. You definitely can’t take it for granted. This year you’re really sure you can’t.”