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|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, Tennessee (7-0) is 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 to my knowledge, suggesting a table flipping.
-- 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 accustomed to f
inding 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.
Jacob Ford played most of the game in the spot, recording a tackle for a loss. Rookie William Hayes got action as the third end, recording a tackle and a pass defensed.