They Could Be Titans of the AFC
NASHVILLE It's been a while since the Tennessee Titans have been believable in the role as powerhouse. Thoroughly professional tough guys? Sure. Overachieving playoff qualifier? Yes. But they weren't many people's choice to be the NFL's only remaining undefeated team essentially halfway through the season.
Yet, that's what the Titans are now, 7-0, after fighting off perennial division tormentor Indianapolis here at home Monday night and thus announcing themselves as a serious contender. With much of pro football's attention directed toward places like New York, Dallas and Pittsburgh, it probably comes as a surprise to a lot of folks that the Titans have now won 10 straight regular season games dating from last season. And they've won a franchise-record seven straight this season with their only star, quarterback Vince Young, fastened to the bench most of the run.
Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts are dropping almost out of sight, 3-4 after the loss here, and they could easily be 1-6 except for meltdowns by the Vikings and Texans. It's something of a stunner, even after watching them struggle for weeks, to see the Colts hanging around .500 and fighting now for a wild-card spot.
The Colts, coached so well for so long by Tony Dungy and quarterbacked so well for so long by Peyton Manning, look ready to be stripped of their elite status. The Colts have not had this poor a record since 2001. They don't even much look like the Colts, who started recent seasons 7-0, 9-0 and 13-0. They don't much look like the team that has won 12 games in five consecutive seasons, an NFL first. Were the Colts, we wondered at kickoff, off to merely a bad start or was it something worse and perhaps more permanent? It's fair now after such a decisive beating to wonder if a new day is dawning, one in which the Colts have become the flailing, desperate challenger while the Titans have become the powerhouse.
It was the Titans who stopped the Colts cold on fourth down on consecutive possessions in the second half. It was the Titans who intercepted Manning on the third possession of the fourth quarter and piled on an insurance touchdown. It was the Titans, after trailing 14-6, who scored 25 straight points before taking a 31-21 victory before a surging crowd that now has every reason to believe its team has replaced both the Patriots and Colts atop the AFC.
Even though Tennessee entered the weekend as the only undefeated team in the league, Monday night's game was, fair or not, a referendum on the Titans. Were they really as good as 6-0 or simply the benefactor of a soft schedule that included the Bengals, Texans and Chiefs, three of the AFC's bottom feeders? Could they remain atop the AFC with Kerry Collins, now in his 14th season, playing the lead in place of the troubled Young? Could a team be a serious contender with the 22nd-ranked total offense and the 30th-ranked passing offense?
The Titans couldn't overwhelm the diminutive Colts defense from the start as many of us thought they might. The Colts defenders aren't just small; they're the size of bobbleheads. Their defensive ends are the size of linebackers and their linebackers the size of safeties. The Colts looked like the JV standing across the line from the Titans. Yet, that miniature defense decided to gang up on the Tennessee rushing attack for more than three quarters one week after the Titans rushed for a franchise-record 332 yards against the Chiefs. Indy actually held the Titans to 46 rushing yards in the first half.
Thing is, Tennessee's greatest asset this season might be its resourcefulness. The line doesn't let anybody touch Collins, which, considering he's 35, is probably a good idea. He's gone five straight games without being sacked. Monday, he didn't turn the ball over, as well. With bruiser LenDale White and burner Chris Johnson contained until late in the game when Tennessee put it away, the Titans coaches were quite content to let Collins patiently go to a Plan B passing game that was efficient (24 for 37, 193 yards) if not dazzling.
Collins looked as calm and as in control as a man with a completely gray beard ought to. One hopes that Young will pay close attention to the man he now backs up, a man who had his own troubled early years trying to find his way as a starting quarterback. Collins, of course, seems just thrilled to be playing, to be leading a team to the top of the standings.
And while Manning led the Colts to a 14-6 advantage, he didn't exactly wake up the echoes of the last few years. Tennessee's defense, anchored by MVP candidate Albert Haynesworth, battled as usual, enough to hold the Colts right at 14 points until the last two minutes, which is an impressive enough number even if Manning and the offense aren't what they've been traditionally. The Colts, meanwhile, have the Patriots on deck, a matchup now not as glamorous as we've grown accustomed to seeing. And unless the Colts can find their vintage form quickly, which is doubtful, they're going to spend the rest of the season watching helplessly as the Titans claim what had been theirs for some time.