NFL Preview - Tennessee (5-6) at Indianapolis (11-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It was a watershed November for both the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans.
When the AFC South rivals face off on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, carrying that momentum into the all-important month of December will be the main directive.
The Colts (11-0) have already clinched the AFC South title, with their 35-27 win over the Houston Texans last week, coupled with a loss for the Jacksonville Jaguars, lifting Indianapolis to its sixth division crown in the last seven years. Though Indy is in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, there is still some work to be done for Jim Caldwell's unbeaten club
A win on Sunday would get the Colts closer to establishing homefield advantage throughout the AFC portion of the playoffs, with the team currently owning a three-game edge on its closest conference combatants, the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers.
Indianapolis can also tie an NFL record with a win over the Titans, as a victory over Tennessee would be the club's 21st consecutive in the regular season, matching the mark set by the 2006-08 New England Patriots.
Indy's most recent loss? Last Oct. 27, to the very same Tennessee Titans team that is trying to enhance its once-laughable playoff prospects by pulling a road upset on Sunday.
Last week, the Titans ran their win streak to five games with a thrilling 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, with a mythic 18-play, 99-yard drive in the closing minutes giving Jeff Fisher's squad the victory.
Tennessee converted three fourth-downs on the drive, the final one coming on a 10-yard pass play from resurgent Titans quarterback Vince Young to rookie wideout Kenny Britt as time expired.
Young was an impressive 27-of-43 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown without a turnover in the game, establishing career-highs in completions, attempts, and yards and moving his record as a starter to 5-0 this season.
Backfield mate Chris Johnson was slightly overshadowed by Young, but carried 18 times for 154 yards and a touchdown to become just the third player in NFL history to rush for 125-plus yards in six consecutive games (Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell).
With the victory, Tennessee became the first team in NFL history to win five straight games after starting a season 0-6.
Indianapolis holds a 17-12 lead in its all-time regular season series with Tennessee, including a 31-9 win in Nashville in Week 5. The teams embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Titans coming up a 31-21 home winner when the teams met in Week 8, and the Colts taking a 23-0 decision victors in the return matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 17. In the latter contest, both teams rested several starters in preparation for the postseason. The Titans, who are 3-10 against the Colts since 2003, are 1-5 in Indianapolis during that span with the only win coming in 2007.
The only postseason meeting between the two was in a 1999 AFC Divisional Playoff, when Tennessee scored a 19-16 road victory en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Fisher has a 6-10 record against Indianapolis, including the aforementioned playoff victory. The Colts' Caldwell is 1-0 against both Fisher and Tennessee as a head coach.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Though Young continues to garner a bulk of the headlines for the Titans, there should be little doubt that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will be most concerned with getting the ball in the hands of Chris Johnson (10 TD, 33 receptions) on Sunday. Thanks in large part to Johnson, the NFL leader in rushing yards (1396), the Titans rank No. 1 in the league in rushing offense (167.9 yards per game), yards per carry (5.4), and rushes of 20 yards or longer (20). Johnson was held to 34 yards on nine carries by the Colts in Week 5, in a game in which Tennessee was forced to throw a great deal due to a large early deficit. When the Titans do go to the air on Sunday, the man pulling the trigger will be Young (1010 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT), who has defied his critics by compiling a 90.2 passer rating and 62.9 completion percentage during his time in the lineup. Last week's performance should enhance Young's confidence in Britt (33 receptions, 2 TD), who finished with seven catches for 128 yards and the decisive touchdown, while fellow WRs Nate Washington (29 receptions, 5 TD) and Lavelle Hawkins (4 receptions), as well as tight end Bo Scaife (29 receptions), figure to be involved as well. A strong Tennessee offensive line has surrendered just 11 sacks all season.
For all the talk about their offensive abilities, the Colts have received more than a complementary effort from the defense during their 11-0 start. Indianapolis has surrendered a league-low 17 touchdowns on the season, and received a big lift from the "D" during their comeback against the Texans last week. Indy forced three Matt Schaub turnovers (2 INT, one fumble) in holding Houston to just 10 points over the game's final 40-plus minutes, with an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Clint Session (81 tackles, 2 INT) in the fourth quarter providing the final nail in the coffin. What's more, Indy won the game without Pro Bowl pass rusher Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 9.5 sacks), who was sidelined with an abdominal injury and is questionable for Sunday. Freeney's potential absence would put extra pressure on defensive end and reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month Robert Mathis (36 tackles, 9.5 sacks), as well as a secondary led by safeties Antoine Bethea (72 tackles, 4 INT) and Melvin Bullitt (55 tackles). Also a question mark is linebacker Gary Brackett (62 tackles, 1 INT), who is dealing with a foot problem, though the return of cornerback Kelvin Hayden (18 tackles, 1 INT) from a knee issue this week figures to help. The group attempting to defend Johnson ranks 15th in the league against the run (108.9 yards per game), with Session leading the team in tackles and the unheralded Antonio Johnson (27 tackles, 1 sack) helping to solidify the interior line.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though Indianapolis has not always run up and down the field at a Saints-like pace this season, the team's offensive numbers remain staggering. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (24 TD, 11 INT) leads the NFL in passing yards (3415), and Indianapolis is No. 1 in league passing offense (305.7 yards per game), completion percentage (70.4), sacks allowed (10), and third-down efficiency (49.6 percent). In addition to Reggie Wayne (79 receptions), who is tied for the league lead in touchdown catches (9) as Week 13 commences, Manning has leaned on the inexperienced likes of Austin Collie (43 receptions, 4 TD) and Pierre Garcon (37 receptions, 4 TD), as well as tight end Dallas Clark (74 receptions, 5 TD). Collie posted four catches for a team-high 70 yards in last week's win in Houston, and had his best game of the season with eight grabs for 97 yards and two TDs when the Colts met the Titans in Week 5. The Indy running game has taken a back seat for most of this year, for obvious reasons, but Joseph Addai (583 rushing yards, 40 receptions, 10 TD) and Donald Brown (263 rushing yards, 2 TD, 10 receptions) have helped keep defenses honest. Addai had 15 carries for 69 yards in his hometown of Houston last week, but failed to contribute to a touchdown by way of rush, reception, or pass for the first time since Week 2.
The Titans allowed Manning to complete 36-of-44 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns when the teams met in Week 5, but that was a game in which the Tennessee secondary was severely depleted. Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (44 tackles, 3 INT) and Vincent Fuller (19 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) both missed the contest, while CB Nick Harper (54 tackles) played through rib problems, but all three players will be back on the field and healthy for this contest. Finnegan and Harper did a nice job on Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin a week ago, limiting them to a combined nine catches for 87 yards without a touchdown. Tennessee has struggled in pressuring the passer for much of the year, and trend will likely continue against Manning as well, with end Kyle Vanden Bosch (32 tackles, 3 sacks) among those trying to swim against the tide and bring down the quick-firing QB. Trying to limit the run will be linebackers Stephen Tulloch (82 tackles, 2 sacks) and Keith Bulluck (86 tackles, 1 INT), who are at the heart of the league's No. 7-ranked rush defense (101.5 yards per game), as well as tackles Tony Brown (28 tackles, 4 sacks) and Jason Jones (15 tackles, 4 sacks). Bulluck notched an interception against Manning in the teams' last meeting.
Chris Johnson has carried fantasy teams from coast to coast this season, particularly in the past six weeks, when he has been phenomenal. His presence as the focal point of the offense makes using any of Tennessee's passing game principles problematic, though you should take a long look at Britt, who appears to emerging as Young's No. 1 wideout. The hot-and-cold Tennessee defense should take a seat against Peyton Manning on Sunday.
Manning has been among the most consistent point-producers in fantasy football, and Wayne, Clark, Addai, and kicker Matt Stover are all must-starts as well. Garcon and Collie have been risk-reward options this season, but will likely give you something. The Indy defense has made enough big plays and generally kept opponents to low enough scoring totals to merit consideration.
Whatever you might think about the Colts' Super Bowl prospects, you have to admit that Indianapolis has been flying awfully close to the sun of late. Its last five wins have come by a total of 18 points, and while the ability to win close contests is the mark of a good team, at some point, Indy is bound to get a bad break late in a contest. What's more, motivation - or the lack of it - has to be considered as a factor at some point. Indianapolis can afford to lose a game or two and still keep a corner on homefield advantage in the AFC. Tennessee is not nearly as good a team as Indy, but will carry a great deal more urgency into this contest, and that focus will help the Titans escape with their sixth straight win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 18, Colts 17
12/03 13:40:15 ET