Did the Indianapolis Colts save their season on Sunday or just prove once again they can defeat the Tennessee Titans?
The Colts rallied to a 34-26 road victory over the Titans at Nissan Stadium for their 10th consecutive triumph over Tennessee. The outcome left both teams 3-4 as they trail the defending AFC South Division champion Houston Texans, who were 4-2 entering Monday night’s game at Denver.
In the AFC South, arguably the NFL’s weakest division, it’s fair to say each team still has a shot. But it’s easy to be skeptical about the Colts considering obvious defensive weaknesses and a continual inability to protect quarterback Andrew Luck. And then there’s the team’s recent history outside of the division.
The Colts overcame a 23-20 deficit in the fourth quarter in Nashville, Tenn., because Luck provided one of the best games of his five-year career. He passed for 353 yards and 3 scores, including a go-ahead, 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Doyle with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining. Luck’s 123.1 passer rating was the fifth-best of his career.
“A locker room after a win, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a more joyful spot in the world,” Luck said. “It’s addicting, it really is. You wish you weren’t so much a slave to that feeling and that emotion, but I think we are.
“There’s a lot we still need to clean up, but to find a way to win that game — that strip sack, the hands team with the (onside kick) ball going out of bounds, it’s good to finish it that way.”
A 28th-ranked Colts defense scored another touchdown just 8 seconds after Doyle’s catch when T.Y. McGill forced a Marcus Mariota fumble and outside linebacker Robert Mathis returned the ball 14 yards to the end zone. The Titans kicked a late field goal to make it a one-score game, but the onside kick bounced out of bounds with 43 seconds remaining.
“We can make things a heck of a lot easier on ourselves, obviously, if we just get some things cleaned up and we have to do it,” Pagano said. “We have no choice. It doesn’t get any easier, we know that.”
The Colts host the Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Six of the nine remaining Colts opponents have winning records. Five of those opponents made the playoffs last year.
“We have a lot of stuff to clean up,” Pagano reiterated. “We will get cleaned up, showered up and get out of here, get home, get back to West 56th (street) and go to work on some of these things that try to make things very difficult for ourselves at times.”
Luck was sacked twice by the Titans, raising his league-leading total to 25. Only one other quarterback has taken more than 20, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton at 22.
The Colts used their fifth different offensive line combination at Tennessee as Joe Reitz was reinserted at right tackle and rookie tackle Joe Haeg was moved to left guard for the injured Jack Mewhort.
“The coaches challenge them every day,” running back Frank Gore said of the offensive line. “They are a young group and they are fighting. They are getting better each week. That’s all that we want — for them to continue to get better and keep working together.”
Despite taking a steady pounding since he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Luck’s 2,074 passing yards rank third in the NFL this season. When he finds Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton for 100 yards receiving, the Colts are 3-0.
Hilton caught seven passes for 133 yards and 1 touchdown against the Titans. The speedy wideout delivered game-winning touchdown receptions against San Diego and Chicago. In the wins, he has 25 catches for 478 yards and 3 scores. In four losses, he has 20 catches for 211 yards and 1 score.
“Our main thing was just to keep swinging at the tree,” Hilton said. “You have an ax and you have to keep chopping and keep chopping.”
While Luck, the NFL’s highest-paid player, is why the Colts rank third in scoring at 27.7 points scored per game, the defense is 28th in points allowed at 28.6 per game. The Colts have allowed at least 20 points in all seven games. That’s happened just twice before in franchise history (2011 nine games, 1981 16 games), and those teams finished 2-14.
As much as the Titans victory was a much-needed win, it’s difficult to forget the previous game, when the Colts blew a 14-point lead in the final 3 minutes and lost 26-23 in overtime at Houston. Although the Colts were able to continue their mastery over the Titans, they’re just 1-2 in division games with losses to the Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. If there’s a positive, it’s that all three division foes must come to Indianapolis the second time around.
“Success is just as hard to handle as defeat,” Pagano said.