NFL Preview - Indianapolis (3-3) at Tennessee (3-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Barring a tie, it comes down to one or the other for the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts.
When the teams get together this Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, either the 3-4 hosts will take a step in the general direction of the Houston Texans� penthouse atop the AFC South, or the 3-3 visitors will end a stretch of losses outside of Indiana that's now stretched to 10 games.
Though it won't do much to alter divisional leadership, a Tennessee win would leapfrog it past the Colts and into second place. Jacksonville is last in the four-team group and begins the week at 1-5.
Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is likely to start for a fourth consecutive time for the Titans in place of second-year man Jake Locker, who injured his non-throwing shoulder against the Texans last month in a 38-14 road loss. Locker has begun throwing in practice, but his timetable remains uncertain.
Regardless of when, coach Mike Munchak said Locker will start when able.
"If Jake's ready to play this week, Jake will start," Munchak said. "If Jake's ready next week, Jake will start and from there we'll figure it out."
Though the coach's comments are clearly in Locker's favor, Hasselbeck has made a viable case for himself since returning to the field. He's won two of three starts since Locker went down, with both victories coming via rally.
After losing, 30-7, at Minnesota in the initial start, he helped Tennessee to a 26-23 victory over visiting Pittsburgh on Oct. 11 with 10 unanswered points in the final 4 minutes, 19 seconds. Then, last week at Buffalo, Hasselbeck threw a 15-yard scoring pass to Nate Washington on fourth down with 63 seconds remaining, securing a dramatic 35-34 win.
A pressing task for the Indianapolis defense, which may get Robert Mathis back after a two-game shelving with a knee injury, will be harnessing the resurgent power of Titans running back Chris Johnson.
The AFC's Offensive Player of the Week ran roughshod over the Bills, gaining 195 yards and scoring two times. He's averaged 7.7 yards per carry over the last two games, and the composite number against Buffalo was the third-highest of his career.
Johnson ran for 2,006 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2009.
In his last three games against Indianapolis, however, Johnson has just 128 rushing yards with a 2.6-yard average per carry. That said, the Colts this season have surrendered 141.7 rushing yards per week through six games.
"We can see that he can still do it," Tennessee left tackle Michael Roos said. "And it was good for us to have a game like this with (195) yards rushing."
Roos, a 6-foot-7, 320-pounder, is questionable after an appendectomy on Monday.
Running the ball is equally important for the Colts, who, led by rookie Vick Ballard's 84 yards, established a season high with 148 yards on the ground in a 17-13 defeat of Cleveland last week.
The win gave Indianapolis three for 2012, one more than it won in 2011.
Also on the verge of returning after sitting two games with a balky knee is leading rusher Donald Brown, who has 239 yards, one touchdown and a 4.0 per- carry average in four starts.
"It's nice to see a little pound, some first downs, two runs in a row and three runs in a row and get those first downs," rookie Andrew Luck said. "It makes life a little easier as a quarterback."
The No. 1 overall pick is the first rookie passer in league history with 1,500 passing yards (1,674) and three wins in a team's first six games.
His foe this week is allowing a league-worst 34 points per game, but Luck has struggled badly in two road outings. He has just one touchdown and five interceptions in losses at Chicago (41-21) and at the New York Jets (35-9).
Indianapolis has 12 turnovers across six games. Nine came in those two defeats.
"Hopefully, those will come down," Luck said. "We realize if we continue on that path, with averaging four a game on the road, we will be lucky to win one game on the road."
The Colts are winless on the road since Peyton Manning led a 31-26 victory at Oakland on Dec. 26, 2010, but they defeated the Titans, 27-13, to snap an 0-13 start to the 2011 season last December.
Tennessee's 27-10 home win over Indianapolis on Oct. 30, 2011, ended a five- game skid in the series.
The Colts lead the all-time series, 21-13, and have won 14 of the last 18 games. Interim coach Brian Arians, filling in as Chuck Pagano undergoes leukemia treatment, has never faced the Titans. Tennessee's Munchak has split two career meetings with Indianapolis.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Colts could have success when utilizing two tight ends. Tennessee has been troubled down the middle of the field and has given up a lot of yards in that manner.
Indianapolis's Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen could benefit from the matchups through the air and give Ballard more blocking strength in the ground game. A 6-foot-6, 252-pounder, Fleener has 19 catches for 198 yards in six games, while Allen has 13 catches for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
If six weeks are indicative, Luck will probably go down in history as a better quarterback than Hasselbeck. But in the mean time, the veteran has assumed capable command of a team whose season was slipping away in the first six games. The wins over the Steelers and Bills have given the Titans confidence, and if Johnson is even two-thirds as effective against the Colts as he was against Buffalo, he'll be a difference-maker at home.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 24, Colts 21
10/25 10:29:41 ET