AFC South: MNF8 Colts
Usually cast as a regular-season AFC title tilt, typically a game with bearing on home-field advantage for the postseason, Sunday night's Patriots-Colts game lacks the luster of matchups from the last five years.
"It's obviously not two undefeated teams," said Peyton Manning.
Tom Brady is missing and Manning isn't chasing any records or lighting up any scoreboards.The 5-2 Patriots have done good work reinventing themselves without the injured Brady. The 3-4 Colts are struggling to get back to the sort of ball that's made them such a dangerous team in the Manning era.
It's still featured on NBC Sunday night and there is still plenty of intrigue. But 8-6 is the worst combined record the two teams have had heading into the annual matchup in this six-year drama.
If it takes a 10-6 record to get a wild card berth, the Colts can only afford two more losses, and they still have road games at Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cleveland and Jacksonville, plus a regular-season finale against Tennessee at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Patriots ran away with a weak AFC East last year with their undefeated regular season, but are now in a major battle with Buffalo and the Jets.
The Colts have conceded they won't win a sixth consecutive division title. The Patriots still have a chance to do it. After Indy they play three division games in a row -- Buffalo, the Jets and at Miami -- before a home game against one of the AFC's best teams, Pittsburgh.
But first, a new version of Patriots-Colts.
"This is definitely different, but both teams, I think, have great confidence in themselves and they have great leadership," Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark told New England reporters. "I feel both teams aren't really kind of panicking [or] hitting the panic button yet. I think the leadership -- that's really going to help jell the teams and really get through this tough time for both teams.
"And I think both teams are definitely going through some adversity they're not used to facing, but I think everyone is approaching it the right way. This is definitely a different situation for us and we're definitely looking forward to the challenge."
|Andy Lyons/Getty Images|
|A poised Kerry Collins guided the Titans to an impressive victory.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When the Titans were good -- Super Bowl-good in 1999, best-team-in-the-regular-season good in 2000, AFC Championship Game-good in 2003 -- Jeff Fisher always talked the same way.
They just wanted to play it tight and give themselves a chance to win it at the end. It was their mantra.
"That's been about the last 10 years, hasn't it?" said punter Craig Hentrich, who laughed when asked about the new Titans. "These last couple weeks have been awesome, because the last three or four minutes of the game you can relax just a little bit and enjoy the game instead of worrying about what might happen. It's been nice not punting a lot too. Last week I had three or four, this week I had two. The offense is playing great, the defense is playing great and special teams is just holding our own."
After Monday night's 31-21 handling of the Colts, a team the Titans have been fruitlessly chasing for five years, the undefeated Titans (7-0) are winning by an average of 13.3 points.
Justin McCareins was a receiver with the Titans from 2001-03 before returning this year.
I asked him: These aren't your father's Titans, are they?
"I guess not," he said, grinning. "We want to win and get a little cushion. It's nice to have a little breathing room in the fourth quarter. I guess we're new and improved."
Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson has been in the league for just three seasons, but that's long enough to remember the win-it-close Titans.
"I think they are who they are, they want to come out and run the ball, throw off of that, and play tough defense," he said. "That's the way they've done it since I've been here. It's working for them. They're just doing it more effectively."
One of Tennessee's defensive heroes was free safety Chris Hope, who hauled in two interceptions for the game's only two turnovers. He entered the game as the only starter in the Titans' secondary without an interception.
When he signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2006, the Titans liked his playing style and his pedigree. He had just won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh.
Early in his first year in Tennessee, when the team started with a five-game losing streak, he expressed his disappointment with the tone and work ethic in the locker room and with some of his new teammates. Many of them were kids who had either been part of a rudderless 4-12 team following a salary-cap purge or were drafted to help fix it.
"We've come more than full circle, what we've done from the first day I got here until now," he said. "You have guys who really dedicate themselves to being professional football players, not just football players. Guys come in and work on their off days. Guys really concentrate on watching film and doing extra stuff after practice. And I just didn't see that when I got here. The dedication and the importance of how we play the game and what it means to us had multiplied by a thousand."
Which has multiplied their average winning margin by roughly two.
Other things I saw, heard or learned:
-- The Colts said during the week that a loss to the Titans would leave them playing for the wild card. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever trailed by four games in a division and won it. Tennessee now has a four-game lead, plus a win, over each of the other three AFC South teams.
"It's not hard to look at it, brother," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "They're 7-0, we're 3-4. So, just do the math on how many games we've got left. We've got to win a whole bunch of games, they've got to lose a whole bunch for us to catch up. I don't think anything has changed [from what we said]."
Said safety Melvin Bullitt: "We're playing for something. Our goal is to get in the postseason. If it's as a wild card, then that's what we're playing for."
Titans cornerback Nick Harper, a former Colt, said he hopes Tennessee's lead proves to be insurmountable.
"The way we are playing right now, that's going to make it even harder for them," he said. "They can't falter, none of the teams behind us can falter, they're going to have to win probably outright. We're going to see all of them again."
-- When Stephen Tulloch knifed through the Colts' line to drop Dominic Rhodes for a 1-yard loss on a third-quarter fourth-and-1, Tennessee's offense responded with a long drive and a field goal that put it ahead 17-14.
Harper snuffed the second of the Colts' fourth-down attempts on the very next drive.
He broke up a pass to the right sideline from Peyton Manning intended for Marvin Harrison on a fourth-and-2 from the Tennessee 34-yard line. The Titans drove from there for a touchdown that boosted their lead to 24-14.
"Loved it, loved it," Harper said. "There were game-changers. Those were do-or-die for them. Fortunately we made the plays, which was huge on our part."
-- When I visited Indianapolis last week, I asked Tony Dungy what he thinks when he hears outsiders suggest the Colts need a change from his steady, soft-spoken demeanor. Could an uncharacteristic flipping of a table at the front of a meeting room have some seismic effect on his faltering team?
His response came, of course, with a smile: "I hold myself in check for the most part. When I played for coach [Chuck] Noll [in Pittsburgh], when you made mistakes, when things weren't going right, he was there to help you play better. I guess there are some times when yelling at guys helps them to play better, but for me it never did. I wanted to know what I needed to do to get my job done. And most players, I think, are like that."
I don't think the Colts are looking to get yelled at and I don't expect Dungy to change successful methods. I do think some players will be searching for something more and different, however.
"I don't really have the answers, but something has got to be done," said Johnson, who was not suggesting a table flipping to my knowledge.
-- The Titans always try to make the Colts drive. Like most opponents, they believe if they can prevent the big play, they can frustrate Indianapolis, which has been so accustom
ed to finding big chunks on one snap in the Manning era.
"We know Peyton's M.O.," Harper said. "He doesn't like to dink and dunk. And as you see, he tried us a couple times, they tried us deep. They make those plays and there is a different outcome. But we made them."
Indy didn't hit on a pass play longer than 26 yards, and outside of tight end Dallas Clark, the longest reception was 14 yards by Reggie Wayne. Wayne and Harrison combined for four catches for 41 yards, numbers the Titans and most Colts opponents will happily live with.
-- Titans high-motor defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) was a scratch as the Titans didn't want to put him at long-term risk. Dave Ball was slated to start in his place, but suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff and didn't return.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Colts were in command at LP Field.
The Titans recovered, forced the issue and outlasted them.
Tennessee is now 7-0 after an impressive 31-21 win over Indianapolis.
I have not been downstairs yet, but I know them well enough to guess at one of the postgame themes for the Titans, the NFL's lone remaining undefeated team: "Take that. You thought we weren't for real, that this might be a fluke. There's your fluke."
Tennessee was down 14-6. The Titans got two fourth-down stops in the second half and their first four possessions after halftime went: touchdown with a two-point conversion, field goal, touchdown, touchdown.
That's Kerry Collins -- who now has to qualify as one of the NFL's best stories -- outdueling Peyton Manning. That's the Titans holding Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison to four catches for 41 yards. That's linebacker David Thornton, once a Colt, lined up as the deep man in the Titans' end-of-game victory formation.
That's Tennessee with a four-game lead over its three AFC South foes as Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Houston are all 3-4 and have all lost to the Titans.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Adam Vinatieri didn't have the leg to kick a 51-yarder into a breeze. The Colts went for it on a fourth down for the second time in the second half. The Titans got their second stop.
Accuracy -- not a giant leg -- has been Vinatieri's trademark over the years, though he has hit some long ones. He is eight of 19 all-time from 50 or longer.
His longest kick this season is from 47 and that was indoors. He's just 5-for-8 overall.
The Colts were more likely to punt than to try a field goal. Instead they threw and saw their former cornerback, Nick Harper, break up a pass intended for Marvin Harrison on fourth-and-2 from the Titans 34 yard-line.
The first failure on fourth down was followed by a go-ahead score by Tennessee.
The second failure on fourth down was followed by a touchdown by LenDale White.
Indy is now down by 10 with 4:37 to play.
We've seen the Colts make dramatic comebacks at Minnesota and Houston. Do they have another one in them?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Did the Titans just turn this game?
Their 14-play, 80-yard, 7:45 touchdown drive is just what they hoped to do against the Colts and the two-point conversion call that had Kerry Collins play fake, spin, roll out and hit fullback Ahmard Hall made it a 14-14 game.
It's hard to take momentum from the Colts when they are going well.
But already, Pierre Garcon's responded with a 32-yard kickoff return.
The Titans always think they'll be able to exert defensive control at this stage of a game by winning the physical battle.
We're about to find out if they are as good at that as they think.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Though the Titans have outgained the Colts 46 net yards to 27, it feels like the Colts have the advantage. Tennessee is the run-reliant team here, and it feels like Dominic Rhodes has done just as well as Chris Johnson.
LenDale White has been an absolute non-factor, getting chopped down for losses on his two carries.
A couple of other thoughts at the half with the Colts leading the Titans, 7-6.
- The Colts have had pretty good special teams coverage in recent weeks, not usually a strength. But the Titans' two biggest plays tonight came from Chris Carr -- a 42-yard kickoff return to open the game and a 35-yard kickoff return following the Colts' touchdown. Tennessee got field goals on those two drives and has not scored otherwise. Indianapolis can really help itself by shoring up the coverage -- Carr started up the middle and made a sharp cut right.
- The Colts offensive line, starting with rookie Jamey Richard, has actually done a good job slowing down Albert Haynesworth -- no small accomplishment. But Haynesworth's counterpart on the interior defensive line, Tony Brown, has been disruptive working mostly against Mike Pollak, also a rookie.
- Rob Bironas tied Al Del Greco's team record of 20 straight field goals by hitting his first two, then failed to set a new mark, missing left from 43 yards. It would have been better to get that miss out of the way somewhere in the six wins when the Titans had a good deal of breathing room.
- I'd expect the Colts to continue to look to Dallas Clark, who seems to be finding the most room and for the Titans to keep forcing the issue in the run game with Chris Johnson, determined to break a big one eventually.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Colts just got burned twice -- once by officials and a slow replay, once by linebacker Clint Session.
In the span of three plays, Indianapolis lost out on two takeaways.
Chris Johnson was ruled down by contact, but eventually replays showed the ball was out before he was down. Tony Dungy didn't have enough evidence quickly enough to challenge, and Kerry Collins hurried the next play.
Then Session started to turn and run before he secured a Collins pass that Gary Brackett tipped.
The Titans couldn't turn the breaks into points, as Rob Bironas hooked a 43-yarder wide left.
It didn't take long to cover the 37 yards, with Clark doing the bulk of the work with a 26-yard reception and then the touchdown.
Manning absorbed a big shot from Albert Haynesworth just as he let it go but got up looking fine.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One series each and the Titans are up 3-0.
That means the Titans had to settle for a field goal, which isn't part of the beat-the-Colts formula, but they did force a punt, which definitely is part of it.
The field goal was a lot better than Tennessee's second series, which had to make Tony Dungy happy: a three-and-out deep in Titans territory.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- So much for my powers of deduction. Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) is inactive for the Titans, a move that will hurt the pass rush.
The full inactive lists for the Colts and Titans
Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch
Quarterback Chris Simms (third QB)
Receiver Chris Davis
Cornerback Reynaldo Hill
Running back Chris Henry
Linebacker Colin Allred
Offensive tackle Mike Otto
Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch just finished going through some paces under the watch of defensive line coach Jim Washburn and strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson. Head trainer Brad Brown stood nearby with coach Jeff Fisher.
Vanden Bosch rushed and leaned and fought against Titans reserve interior lineman Leroy Harris and looked good to me.
KVB, the right end, is a huge element of the Titans pass rush, a non-stop effort player who sets a tone with his relentless chasing. He'll be much more of a project for left tackle Charlie Johnson or Tony Ugoh to handle. Dave Ball would be first in line for Vanden Bosch if he can't go or is limited.
The likely scenario is that Vanden Bosch is active and the Titans simply monitor how much he's able to go and how effective he is. He dressed last week in Kansas City, but didn't play beyond the first series. I'm trying to see if Michele Tafoya, who's covering the Titans sideline tonight has gotten any advanced word, but her cell phone isn't great or she's got better things to do that text me.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, TENN. -- Tarik Glenn clearly doesn't want to talk badly of his replacement. The former Colts left tackle retired before the 2007 season, forcing rookie Tony Ugoh into the lineup a year earlier than planned.
By virtually all accounts, Ugoh did well. But this year a groin injury sidelined him after the first two games. While he has been deemed healthy, he's not reclaimed his starting job. Is the groin still an issue? Has Ugoh been demoted?
The team hasn't offered any explanation.
This week there has been speculation that the Colts will move Charlie Johnson to left guard, replacing rookie Jamie Richard, to help the team deal with Titans terrorizing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. That would mean Ugoh would be back.
Glenn, who was at a Monday Night Football Chalk Talk luncheon this afternoon at Ruth's Chris near Vanderbilt, said he has no idea what's up with Ugoh but that thinks the team will stick with Johnson at left tackle.
"I think they are going with Charlie, I don't know what the deal is with Tony," he said. "I think they are going to go with Charlie. I think they like what Charlie has given their offense just with consistency and durability. He provides some veteran-ish experience, he played in the Super Bowl for a great amount of time and played very well. Right now, that's what this team needs, especially up front is just some people who've been there before just to get this ball rolling."
Glenn said he has been focused on his four kids. He's done some radio and TV for the team, has been studying for the GMATS as he considers business school and has been working with inner city youth.
He said he is still dealing with being retired, calling it a struggle.
A couple other thoughts from Glenn on the Colts offensive line.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they fared pretty well because Howard Mudd's units normally can step up to big challenges. But it's going to be difficult, because the Titans are pretty solid at every defensive line position. Protecting the quarterback and establishing the running game are going to be hard for the Colts this week."
"It difficult for them to jell as a unit, especially in away games, communicating on the road with crowd noise -- those things develop with time, they just don't automatically come. It's easy to replace one guy, but when you have two or three different positions that you are trying to fill in with newer guys, it makes it difficult."
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
As you get amped up for the big Colts-Titans Monday Night Football game, here is every look at the game and every story on the Jaguars and Texans I could find.
I'll check in mid-day and be situated at LP Field early to give you any updates I can.
- The Texans come up with the most lopsided win in franchise history, writes John McClain.
- Andre Johnson's mood and the Texans as a team are getting better, says Dale Robertson.
- Houston didn't allow a touchdown in two Bengals' trips inside the 20, a big development according to Meghan Manfull.
- Ahman Green left the game with a leg cramp.
- The Texans are a pretty decent football team, according to Jerome Solomon.
- Four keys for the Colts as they face a big challenge to their AFC South supremacy, from Mike Chappell.
- The Colts throw more than everybody but Detroit while the Titans run more than everybody, making for an interesting contrast, writes Chappell.
- As expected, Joseph Addai, Bob Sanders and Kelvin Hayden are out Monday night, reports Chappell.
- Reggie Wayne's moving to the slot in three wide and can cause problems there, writes Chappell.
- Stopping Albert Haynesworth won't be easy, says Chappell.
- Freddy Keiaho wants to be the Colts' leading tackler, writes Tom James.
- Peyton Manning's looking to help the Colts pull things together, writes Jarrett Bell.
- The Jaguars let another one slip away and Jack Del Rio is not happy about it, writes Vito Stellino.
- Gene Frenette says Del Rio boiled over after this one.
- Jacksonville's defense tightened up late but it wasn't enough, says Hays Carlyon.
- Cleveland's Shaun Rogers did a lot to hurt Jacksonville, according to Garry Smits.
- Michael C. Wright looks at a bad day for special teams.
- Gene Frenette's report card includes no Fs.
- Big games from David Garrard and Matt Jones were not enough, writes Wright.
- The run game did not get on track, says Carlyon.
- Chris Naeole broke his hand in warm-ups and did not play for the first time as planned, according to Kyle Hightower.
- The Jaguars are missing "it," says Cole Pepper.
- Physical play by corners at the line will be a big part of the Titans' defensive plan, writes Jim Wyatt.
- The Titans are out to prove they are no fluke, says Wyatt.
- David Climer buys into the Titans-get-no-national-attention thinking.
- A week-long stretch of stories on Ron Jaworski concludes with a look at the stats he's got access to, by Gary Estwick.
- Game picks from Indy Star and Tennessean writers.
- Wyatt's game preview.
- A win puts Tennessee in complete control of the AFC South standings, says Terry McCormick.
- A look at LenDale White from a Denver perspective, courtesy of Jeff Legwold.
- Big national media day for White, as Sam Farmer also takes a look.
|There's more pressure on Peyton Manning, left, than on Kerry Collins to carry his team to victory.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With three touchdown passes and a 74.2 passer rating, Kerry Collins is being hailed as a hero at the helm of the undefeated Titans.
With eight touchdowns and an 80 passer rating, Peyton Manning is fielding a lot of questions about what's wrong.
The two quarterbacks who square off Monday night at LP Field lead very different schemes and are asked to do very different things -- Manning must produce points for the Colts to be successful; Collins needs only to minimize mistakes.
Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said it's almost like the two play different positions.
"Peyton is still a great quarterback and everyone would love to have him on their team," he said. "What Kerry has come in and done is not made mistakes for us, put us in good situations and let the defense do a lot of the work.
"Peyton has to carry [his] team and Kerry doesn't. He just needs to make plays and not make mistakes, that's all we ask of them ... There is not as much pressure on Kerry as Peyton. He's the face of that franchise. You know here, the face of the franchise is going to be Vince [Young]. So all Kerry has to do is go out there and basically not lose it, which he hasn't. He's played well for us."
"Not losing it" isn't what young quarterbacks grow up dreaming about. But in what amounts to a second career renaissance and at 35 years old, Collins has a handle on what's important.
"Maybe my numbers don't jump out, but I think offensively as a whole, we've been fairly productive," Collins said. "... At this point in my career, I'm really only worried about one stat and that's how many wins I can get."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He is the rowdy voice, if not the face, of Monday Night Football.
And during the intro to this week's telecast, the lyrics of his "All My Rowdy Friends are Comin' Over Tonight" will include this:
The Colts and Titans LIGHT UP the marquee
It's gonna get nasty in ole' Tennessee
We're gonna blow the roof off Nashville tonight
Tennessee's own Hank Williams Jr. will also sing the national anthem at LP Field before the Colts and Titans kickoff.
I had a winding 10 minute phone conversation with him recently, during which he talked about being a Steelers fan first and a Titans fan second, recounted his friendships with players like Ken Stabler and Derrick Thomas and talked proudly of his association with Monday night telecasts.
"It's the ultimate," he said. "I've got some awards in cases. But when we visit a hospital or something and a 10-year old says, 'Oh my God, you're the Monday night man,' that is the supreme award right there. How could you imagine a one-year deal was going to turn into, in the words of Al Michaels, an American signature?
"I'm not sure I can explain it. People love their football and that song is the song that people are waiting to hear when that game starts. It's just one of those magical things. They probably know that I am into it, that I enjoy what I am doing instead of 'Oh, God, another one of those.' That ain't the way it works."
Colts center Jeff Saturday still listens to Williams sometimes, but not as often as he did when he was a high school wrestler looking to get pumped up for a match.
"I've been to a couple of his shows and he threw some good ones down in Atlanta," Saturday said. "When you are growing up I think you can relate to a lot of his tougher man songs, 'Country Boy Can Survive.' You can connect with struggling and fighting through things."
Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins hopes to get a chance to say hello to Williams before or after the game.
"That would be cool, I'm a big fan," Collins said. "My favorite song is 'Family Tradition,' without question. I think the line, 'I have loved some ladies, I have loved Jim Beam, they both tried to kill me in 1973' that's one of the greatest lines ever in a country song. I just like what he's all about. It's kind of that outlaw deal."
"We're going to do that," Williams said of meeting Collins. "We might even get some guitar lessons worked in."
Williams is still that outlaw, but he concedes he's settled down and is now more in line with his 1981 hit, "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)."
"I'm in Henry County, Tennessee, I take an 11-year old to school about every morning, and I do a mile-and-a-quarter with two Labradors," he said. "I'm out there with the McCain-Palin camp. You can't do what I do and my kind of regimen and not be taking care of yourself pretty good. I like my cigars, like I am having right now, and I still like to go to training camps."
His daily walk and the time he spends hunting and fishing qualify as quality creative time, he said.
He's connected to a younger crowd through a close relationship with Kid Rock, proudly pointing out that on Kid Rock's album titled "American Bad Ass" he's mentioned in four different songs.
Williams was with Kid Rock when Titans reserve offensive lineman Daniel Loper met him at Agave, a Nashville nightspot.
"He seemed like a real nice guy, down to earth, and apparently a country boy can survive," Loper said. "His family is the cornerstone of country music. A lot of my years growing up were listening to Hank Junior. I have a lot of favorites, but the best song hands down is 'Country Boy Can Survive.'"
Williams didn't offer much when asked to review the state of rebel country mainstream music these days.
He's currently recording an album he promises "is going to be completely loaded" and willingly listed artists he enjoys: Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, whose work is regarded by some critics as following in the tradition of Hank Williams Sr., and more mainstream country artists like Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
He lists all of his kids when he's asked about Holly Williams, but she's a recording artist and he said he can envision her taking over for him on Monday nights some day.
"I'm all for it, why not?" he said. "I taught her to aim high, so why not?"