Tribune Star Correspondent
Indianapolis Colts interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians referred to Sunday's 27-23 come-from-behind win over the Tennessee Titans as a tale of two halves.
He wasn't too far wrong.
Over the first two quarters of the game, Tennessee was firmly in control, taking a 20-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. The Titans had outgained a lethargic Indianapolis offense 270-111, limiting the running game to a paltry 12 yards.
Tennessee's defense, meanwhile, caused havoc whenever the Colts tried to throw the football. The Titans' front four overwhelmed Indianapolis' offensive line, sacking rookie quarterback Andrew Luck three times and picking off two of his passes. One of those interceptions was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon.
It certainly wasn't a productive half of football for a Colts team that had won eight of its first 12 games this season and is in contention for one of the two available AFC playoff wild-card berths. Things looked bleak for Indianapolis.
Somehow, though, the Colts got their act together over the third and fourth quarters en route to posting their ninth victory of the year.
It started with the opening drive of the third quarter. Indianapolis got the ball first to begin the second half and marched 80 yards in 14 yards, culminating in a 1-yard run by Delone Carter. That narrowed the margin to 20-14 with 8:36 left in the quarter.
Barely three minutes later, on Tennessee's second possession of the half, cornerback Cassius Vaughn intercepted a Jake Locker pass and returned it three yards for a touchdown. The Titans had been pinned at their own 1-yard line after a 52-yard punt by Pat McAfee rolled out of bounds.
Just like that, Indianapolis had rallied for a 21-20 lead. Two Adam Vinatieri field goals, one boomed from 53 yards out and the other from 40 yards, were sandwiched around a 25-yard field goal by Titans placekicker Rob Bironas.
Locker's second interception of the half, and the game, by cornerback Darius Butler set up Vinatieri's second kick of the day and gave the Colts some much-needed breathing room.
Even then, Indianapolis had to rely on its defense to close out the game. The Titans picked up one first down on their final offensive possession before punter Brett Kern was forced to kick the ball away. Luck and the rest of the Colts offense were able to pick up two big first downs, one on a 13-yard run by Vick Ballard and the other on an 11-yard pass to tight end Dwayne Allen.
Somehow, someway, Indianapolis had managed to register its eighth one-possession win of the season and improved its overall record to 9-4 and 3-1 in the AFC South. Coupled with losses by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Colts chances of being the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs keep getting better. One win over the team's final three games of the regular season would pretty much clinch a wild-card spot.
"[The win was] something that we can obviously learn from. Why we played as poorly as we did in the first half, we’ll go back and try to evaluate because we seemed to be ready to play the ball game. Obviously we were not in any phase of the game other than Pat McAfee kicking the heck out of the ball," Arians said afterward.
"Second half, as we have in the past, we’ve come in and figured out how and what we needed to do in the second half of the ball game to go out and overcome what [hole] we had dug. Obviously first thing first was to get points on the board. That was a great drive to start the second half and our defense did a heck of a job getting some turnovers."
Tennessee had jumped out on top early on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Locker to tight end Jared Cook with 10:10 left in the first quarter. The Colts countered with a 4-yard toss from Luck to wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
From that point on, though, it appeared as if everything was going the Titans way. Bironas connected on a 40-yard field goal to push their lead to 10-7. Shortly thereafter, Witherspoon scored on the interception return on a play that most of the 64,688 fans in attendance didn't agree with.
It appeared that Luck's knee was down when he threw the ill-advised pass. He was scrambling on the play and was falling forward as he got rid of the ball after being tackled by defensive end Derrick Morgan. After a replay review, however, the touchdown stood.
On Tennessee's next possession, the Colts were penalized three times when it appeared as if Indianapolis' defense had thwarted the drive. The Titans picked up three first downs via penalty, allowing Bironas time to kick his second field goal of the half, this one from 31 yards away.
The win was a costly one. Indianapolis lost center Samson Satele (ankle), offensive tackle Winston Justice (biceps), inside linebacker Kavell Conner (hamstring), fullback Robert Hughes (knee) and Carter (ankle). The Colts were down to only one healthy running back (Ballard).
"This was truly a battle of attrition. We were down to our last lineman again and we dressed three backs and two guys got hurt on the same play. So Vick [Ballard] was all we had and that’s kind of why we had five wides in there in the second half because we had no more running backs. We had to give them a blow. I was really pleased with our defense getting turnovers," Arians explained.
"Obviously, the big score [from Vaughn's interception return] was huge to get the lead and then it was our offense’s job to answer the bell and to score at the time that they did. It was a great team win again and like [I've] said earlier, there won’t be any blowouts with this team. This team is too young. We just try to figure out a way to win every week and so far we’ve been able to do that.”
Luck completed 16-of-34 passes for 196 yards with a touchdowns and two interceptions. He was also sacked four times. Wayne caught six passes for 64 yards and a TD. Ballard got the bulk of the work at running back and wound up with career-best 94 yards in 19 carries.
Locker connected on 22-of-35 passes for 262 yards and one TD and was sacked once. He had two interceptions on the day while also rushing for a team-high 51 yards. The Indianapolis defense did a nice job of containing Titans running back Chris Johnson, who had 44 yards in 19 carries.
Indianapolis will have two straight road games, facing AFC South leader Houston next week at Reliant Stadium and then going to Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 23. The Colts will close out the regular season at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 30.