NFL Preview - Tennessee (5-6) at Indianapolis (7-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - And a little Harvard graduate shall lead them.
When starting quarterback Jake Locker was lost for the season a few weeks back with a foot injury, the majority of informed observers assumed the Tennessee Titans' season -- suddenly dropped into the lap of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick -- was lost right along with him.
Few could blame them. But those few appear to have been right.
The ex-Cincinnati Bengal, St. Louis Ram and Buffalo Bill has completed more than 70 percent of his passes and yielded five touchdowns -- and no interceptions -- in his last three games as the Titans head into a Week 13 showdown at AFC South leader Indianapolis.
Tennessee will begin the game with playoff destiny within its own hands, as a result of last week's 23-19 defeat of Oakland that put them atop a muddled postseason wannabe heap that includes five other teams at 5-6 entering Week 13.
The Titans also trail the Colts by just two games with five remaining.
Fitzpatrick was 30-of-42 for 320 yards and two scores in the win over the Raiders, which turned in their favor with his TD strike to Kendall Wright with just 10 seconds to play.
Wright had 103 yards on six catches and rookie Justin Hunter, a University of Tennessee product, had 109. The math added up to the Titans' first 300-yard passing game with a pair of 100-yard receivers in nine years.
On the ground, running back Chris Johnson scored twice and averaged more than five yards per carry against the Colts in November, but he's averaged just 59.5 yards against them over the last six games in the series.
"Hopefully we'll capture some of the momentum we have," Fitzpatrick said, "and use that to catapult us through the rest of the season."
In their Nov. 14 matchup in Nashville, the Colts were behind 17-3 before rallying for a 30-27 victory. In its last four games, Indianapolis has been drubbed, 93-12, in the first half -- a trend that's been noticed all the way up the ladder, by owner Jim Irsay.
The Colts lost, 38-8, at home against St. Louis three weeks ago, then trailed, 27-3, at the half last week before ultimately falling, 40-11, at Arizona.
Taking his irritation to Twitter, Irsay suggested the group "get our heads out of r butts-WAKE UP!"
Left to execute that plan is coach Chuck Pagano.
"We have to figure out a way," he said, "because something's missing, and it certainly isn't our players and their effort and the way they practice and the way that they prepare and the time they put in."
Quarterback Andrew Luck completed 23-of-36 passes and ran for a score in the first meeting with Tennessee, but fell to only 163 yards through the air against the Cardinals, among the lowest outputs of his brief career.
He has two TDs and four interceptions in the last three games, after that ratio was 13 to 3 in the first eight games.
The defense hasn't helped by allowing opponents to score 30.2 points and convert nearly half (45.2 percent) of their third downs in the last six games. Those numbers were 15.8 and 32.3 in the first six games. The Colts are just 27th-best at stopping the run, allowing 125.5 yards per game.
Alongside Luck in the backfield, running back Donald Brown has been perennially successful against Tennessee - averaging 7.3 yards per carry and scoring three times in the last three games in the series - but he had a single yard against Arizona on two carries.
Similarly stifled has been early-season acquisition Trent Richardson, who's gained just 59 yards - on 2.1 yards per carry - in his last two games.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Taking the air out.
Indianapolis wide receiver T.Y. Hilton hasn't thrived since the season-ending injury to Reggie Wayne and is averaging just 8.2 yards per catch in his last two games in particular. Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner has the responsibility of covering him this week.
Whack a passer.
When he looks across the line of scrimmage, expect Fitzpatrick's top priority to be locating outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who's got six sacks and three fumble recoveries in his career against Tennessee. This season, he has posted a career-best 14 1/2 sacks.
If nothing at all else, the Colts could do the NFL world a service this week by playing well enough to keep Irsay from more Twitter outbursts. The more they can get Fitzpatrick to play like his typical self - and not his recent self - the more successful they'll be toward that end.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 28, Titans 20
11/29 09:17:18 ET