The Indianapolis Colts haven't done a great job convincing skeptics that they're Super Bowl contenders, but it's looking a whole lot like they'll get a chance to prove themselves when it counts.
Andrew Luck threw for 232 yards and rushed for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, as the Colts came back from a two-touchdown deficit to score a 30-27 victory over the Tennessee Titans at LP Field Thursday night.
The Colts (7-3) now hold a three-game lead in the AFC South and have the tiebreaker over Tennessee. Indianapolis will have a chance to clinch the division when the Titans (4-6) come to Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1 if either the Colts win or Tennessee loses its Week 12 contest.
Tennessee coach Mike Munchak was aware of his team's dire position after the game, but seemed confident his team wasn't out of contention yet:
Mike Munchak: “We have six more games to play. We can win them all and be in solid position. But we have to come back and play better.”— Tennessee Titans (@TennesseeTitans) November 15, 2013
If the second half is any indication, the Colts should feel pretty comfortable facing their division rival in two weeks' time.
Down 17-6 going into halftime after two horrid quarters, Indianapolis didn't waste time in its comeback attempt. Donald Brown scored his first of two touchdowns on the Colts' opening drive, an 11-play, 74-yard jaunt that saw Pep Hamilton start opening up his famously conservative playbook.
It also didn't hurt that the Colts caught an earful at halftime from a fired up Andrew Luck(h/t Mike Wells of ESPN.com)
"It was to a whole new level," punter Pat McAfee said. "Normally, he has a calming presence, meaning we know what we have to do to win the game. This was a different Andrew."
That touchdown proved to be only the beginning of the Colts' third-quarter luck, as Devon Wylie fumbled the ensuing kickoff and gave Indianapolis another easy scoring drive. Taking over at the Tennessee 20-yard line, Luck completed a nine-yard pass on first down and scampered the final 11 on second down, giving the Colts a 20-17 lead with 7:36 remaining in the third quarter.
Coming off last week's frustrating 38-8 loss to the St. Louis Rams in which he had his first three-interception game of his career, Luck was solid after a slow start. He didn't turn the ball over, completed 23 of his 36 passes, and added 31 total yards on the ground. Former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener was the recipient of eight Luck passes for 107 yards, career highs in both categories.
As pointed out by NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, Luck is now 8-0 following a loss in his career:
Colts move to 7-0 on @nflnetwork. Andrew Luck moves to 8-0 after a loss.— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) November 15, 2013
Not all went well for the Colts offense, however.
Much-maligned since almost the moment he arrived in Indianapolis, running back Trent Richardson might find himself battling for his starting job. The former No. 3 overall pick struggled again Thursday, gaining only 22 yards on eight carries. He's now gone four straight games without a carry longer than eight yards and has only averaged four yards per carry in one contest all season.
Brown, who knows a little bit about the scrutiny a first-round back can face, proved the much more effective ball-carrier. He gained 80 yards on his 14 carries with the two scores. With Indianapolis trying to milk the clock in the fourth quarter, Brown, not Richardson, was the team's workhorse on an 11-play drive that chewed up 4:40 off the clock. Brown finished the drive from 11 yards out with 3:05 remaining to give the Colts a 30-20 lead.
Mike Munchak on Colts: “They ran the ball. You have to be able to stop it. They did exactly what they wanted to do and we didn’t stop them."— Tennessee Titans (@TennesseeTitans) November 15, 2013
Titans running back Chris Johnson matched his counterpart's two scores, but struggled to find the same consistency. He pushed the Titans to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter with touchdown runs of 30 and seven yards, carving an Indianapolis run defense that came into Week 11 ranking 26th against the run. But Johnson's first-quarter excellence ended there, as he gained only 16 yards in the final three quarters after having 70 in the first.
Playing without Jake Locker, who will miss the rest of the season with a Lisfranc injury, the Titans passing game was also listless and one-dimensional until the Titans' final drive. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a respectable 22 of 28 passes, but managed only 222 yards and a touchdown, essentially locking into underneath throws all game.
Tight end Delanie Walker and wideout Kendall Wright were responsible for 19 of Fitzpatrick's completions, with all other Tennessee receivers getting only six targets. The duo did well at getting open underneath, and Walker set a career high of his own with 10 catches for 91 yards, including the 19-yard touchdown reception that finalized the score.
But the Titans' increase in aggressiveness came far too late—Nate Washington's 42-yard reception on the final drive was their only pass of 20 yards or more—and may very well be watching the playoffs at home because of that.
Andrew Luck (QB, Indianapolis Colts): B
It's tough finding an exact grade when Luck puts forth performances like this. He was neither great nor horrible, resting in that comfortable mediocrity where Alex Smith built a mansion. But what makes it so difficult judging where Luck settles on the quarterback paradigm is that he's so often carrying the offense by himself.
Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury leaves T.Y. Hilton as his only plus receiver (Coby Fleener is replacement-level by most metrics), and Trent Richardson has been an abomination. So Luck is often forced to improvise or force balls into tighter windows than he might like, resulting in incompletions and, at times, turnovers.
Luck avoided the cough-ups on Thursday, but mostly made up for it with short, check-down throws. Like Fitzpatrick, he had only one completion of 20 yards or more. Winning cures all, but Luck and the Colts would probably benefit from opening up the attack downfield.
Pat Angerer (LB, Indianapolis Colts): B-
The man with the most appropriate name in football turned in his third straight strong outing. Angerer finished with nine total tackles, his third straight contest with at least eight.
After being hobbled by nagging injuries for much of the first half of the season, Angerer has looked back in full health and played a huge role in stopping Chris Johnson in the second half. He made smart reads and crashed to the line on run plays and wrapped up on Tennessee completions over the middle.
Of course, his high-volume tackle total did obscure a couple areas of weakness. Delanie Walker pancaked him on a run in the first half, and there were a couple times he was fooled in coverage and struggled to recover with the wideout, looking like he was wearing roller skates.
But with the Titans doing an excellent job of getting the ball out of Fitzpatrick's hands early and limiting the effect of pass-rushers, Angerer gets the nod here among defensive players.
Chris Johnson (RB, Tennessee Titans): B
Someday, there will be a study that correlates fantasy football to male pattern baldness. In that study, Chris Johnson will be the player who pushes the study to statistical significance. Within the first 11 minutes of the game, Johnson had produced his longest run of the season (30 yards), scored two touchdowns, and compiled his second-highest fantasy total of the season in most leagues.
Things, as they did for his entire team, mostly went downhill from there. Johnson had 70 yards on his first eight carries, and then compiled just 16 on nine handoffs the rest of the way. While it's hard to fault Johnson for the Titans' failure in the second half, his inconsistencies speak to why Tennessee's offensive struggles.
It also doesn't help when Mike Munchak pulls Johnson when the back has the hot hand. But we're grading players here, not coaches. Johnson had a very nice evening, just not one as good as it looked like it'd be early on.
Alterraun Verner (DB, Tennessee Titans): B+
It's a cliche to call someone "the best (fill in blank) that people don't talk about," but it's appropriate in the case of Verner. The Titans defensive back has developed quietly over his first four seasons, beginning as a kid thrust into a far too big a role as a rookie into one of the most solid corners in the league.
If you're looking for a reason Luck wasn't able to find success downfield, it begins with Verner. He was suctioned to Hilton for most of the contest, working with him stride for stride and making some big plays on the ball.
While he didn't take the league lead in interceptions—he's currently tied with Detroit's DeAndre Levy with five—Verner batted down two balls and made four tackles. Another solid overall night.
Indianapolis might have a tough time moving the winning streak to two games next week, when it travels to Tempe to take on the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals currently have the fourth-best pass defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Tennessee hits the road to take on the Oakland Raiders, in the first of three straight games away from the friendly confines.
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