NFL Preview - Indianapolis (6-3) at Tennessee (4-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tennessee Titans squandered a golden opportunity to turn up the heat on the Indianapolis Colts in the race for the AFC South crown.
Mike Munchak's club will get another chance starting Thursday in Music City when the two clubs meet in the first of two matchups over the next three weeks. The sequel is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 1 at Indianapolis.
The 6-3 Colts currently hold a two-game edge over Tennessee in the division and if the Titans are going to make a move they will have to do it knowing that starting quarterback Jake Locker is lost for the season due to a Lisfranc injury.
Locker suffered the problematic injury in his right foot during Sunday's 29-27 loss to the previously winless Jaguars after taking a hard hit during the second quarter.
"I don't know exactly how it happened, but when I got up from that run I could feel it," Locker said. "It's tough. You want to be on the football field with your teammates."
The oft-injured Locker had thrown for 1,256 yards and eight touchdowns this season while completing 60.7 percent of his passes. He also ran for 155 yards with a pair of scores despite missing two games in October with a hip injury suffered in a Sept. 29 win over the Jets.
Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at quarterback against the Jags and completed 22-of-33 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns. The veteran has thrown 96 touchdowns in his career, and is expected to start for Tennessee for the remainder of the season with the unproven Rusty Smith backing him up.
"We're just concentrating on these seven weeks," Munchak said. "That's all we're concerned about. Next year is next year. Right now we just got to go forward and try to win a game."
Sloppy play cost the Titans against Jacksonville in a setback tight end Delanie Walker called "disgusting." Tennessee was unable to overcome four turnovers, including two by Locker before he left.
Although they fared better than the Jaguars in total yards (362 to 214), first downs (19 to 13) and third down conversions (56 percent to 25 percent), the Titans lost three fumbles and threw an interception, leading to 17 of the Jaguars' points. Jacksonville also scored two points on a safety.
Chris Johnson fumbled on Tennessee's first play from scrimmage when Jags LB Paul Posluszny stripped him and as he hit the ground and recovered the miscue, leading to a Maurice Jones-Drew 6-yard touchdown run. Locker was also intercepted and fumbled as the Titans lost for the fourth time in five games.
"The roles were reversed. We looked like an 0-8 team. We deserved to lose," said Titans safety Bernard Pollard.
"To lose to a team like this, the way we did, we had countless self-inflicted wounds," added linebacker Colin McCarthy.
Indianapolis hardly comes in burgeoning with confidence either after St. Louis rookie Tavon Austin scorched the club with three long TDs last Sunday in an emphatic 38-8 Rams win.
The dynamic Austin, who came into Sunday's game with just two touchdowns, returned a punt 98 yards for a score and caught TD passes of 57 and 81 yards. The rookie wide receiver became the third player in NFL history with three touchdowns of 55 yards or longer in a single game, joining Cliff Battles and Chris Johnson.
"I knew the day was going to come," Austin said. "It was just me being patient and me being true to myself and to keep working. I'm just glad that I had an opportunity."
Andrew Luck connected on 29-of-47 passes for a career-high 353 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for the Colts, who maintained that two-game gap over the Titans despite their worst performance of the season.
Donald Brown caught five passes for 64 yards and a touchdown for Indianapolis, which suffered its biggest home defeat since losing 31-0 to Chargers in 1993.
"Certainly we're not going to bury our head in the sand on this past ball game," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "We'll address the issues like we always address them. We know there are things that need to be fixed and we'll go to work on fixing those things."
The Colts have won three consecutive games against the Titans and eight of the last nine in the series, which marks its 38th all-time installment this week. The last time the Titans, who are 14-23 all-time versus Indy, got the better of the Colts was Oct. 30, 2011 at LP Field (27-10).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
With six wins in their first nine games of 2013, the Colts have carried over the success they had in 2012 when they earned a wild card berth in their first season under direction of Pagano and Luck.
Luck, the league's first-overall draft pick in 2012, is now 17-8 as a starter and has followed up on his Pro Bowl rookie campaign by completing 183- of-311 passes for 2,198 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions so far.
He's on the verge of joining the elite club but things have gotten a bit sticky since veteran receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL against Denver back on Oct. 20.
Already without injured tight end Dwayne Allen (hip) for the season, Wayne's absence means Luck is missing his two top targets in key situations and opponents have been focused on taking away TY Hilton, a plan that has worked for most of the last two weeks.
Houston led the Colts 21-3 at halftime in Week 9 before its head coach Gary Kubiak collapsed at intermission with what was later described as a mini- stroke. To its credit Indianapolis was able to take advantage on that situation to rebound and win but the truth is that the team's offense has been ineffective for six of the past eight quarters it has played without Wayne. And take the Kubiak situation out of the equation and its likely the Colts would be in full panic mode.
The speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn't stepped up in Wayne's absence and the running game has been virtually non-existent with in-season pickup Trent Richardson offering little. Indy has been held under 75 yards on the ground in three of its last four encounters.
"We realize how important the run game is to our success," Luck said. "We'll improve, and we're looking forward to the Titans."
Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray will undoubtedly look to bracket Hilton and force others to beat him.
On the other side of the ball when you hear the term veteran backup, it's usually code for failed starter and that kind of sums up Fitzpatrick. Now playing in his ninth NFL campaign, the former long-time Bills frontman has 70 career starts and more than 15,000 passing yards.
Fitzpatrick is not going to be overwhelmed by the moment but he also doesn't have the physical skills to press opposing defenses. He will be asked to play game manager and stay away from momentum-altering turnovers.
The Colts' defense really needs to excel on first- and second-downs so Fitzpatrick is behind the 8-ball on 3rd-and-long, where he has been known to force things in the past.
Conversely Johnson, who ran it 12 times for just 30 yards against a Jags team that is the NFL's worst against the run, must pick it up for the Titans..
"The short weeks are always interesting," Luck said. "I think I learned that last year. We need to get back on the field and right our wrongs. Absolve our sins, if you will."
Indianapolis really hasn't been the same since Wayne went down and it's hard to imagine righting those wrongs and absolving those sins on a short week.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, is no star but he has a ton of experience and is one of the better backups in football. Look for the Titans to close the gap in the AFC South here before the Colts hold serve in Indy down the line.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 23, Colts 17
11/13 14:58:59 ET