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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (4-0) at Tennessee (0-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Both the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts underwent significant coaching changes during the offseason. The aftermath couldn't have been more different for the two AFC South rivals.
The reeling Titans will try again to claim an elusive first victory of 2009 when the high-powered Colts pay a visit to LP Field for a pivotal divisional showdown this Sunday night.
The offseason head coaching switch from the now-retired Tony Dungy to trusted assistant Jim Caldwell has been a remarkably seamless transition for Indianapolis, which is off to a flying 4-0 start and has posted easy wins in each of its last two contests. That excellent beginning has been a continuance of last season's success, when the Colts won their final nine outings of the 2008 campaign to reach the playoffs for a seventh year in a row.
Following last Sunday's 34-17 triumph over visiting Seattle, Indianapolis has now won 13 straight non-playoff tests. The team's last regular-season loss came to the Titans at LP Field, a 31-21 setback during Week 8 of the 2008 ledger.
While the Colts may have new authority at the top, the team's leader on the playing field remains the same. Quarterback Peyton Manning has been sensational through the early portion of this season, with the reigning NFL MVP having racked up four consecutive 300-yard games and tossing nine touchdown passes over that outstanding stretch.
Indianapolis' surge could be viewed as a mild surprise, but Tennessee's precipitous fall from grace has to be considered one of the biggest shocks of this 2009 season. The 0-4 Titans have already lost more games than last year's edition which nudged out the Colts for the AFC South crown and top overall seed in the conference playoffs with a 13-3 mark.
The downfall of a once-mighty defense has been the biggest culprit for that unwanted start. The unit, now under the supervision of Chuck Cecil following former coordinator Jim Schwartz's acceptance of the Detroit Lions' head coaching job in January, has surrendered an average of 27 points per game and is tied for last in the NFL in passing yards allowed.
The Schwartz-led 2008 defense yielded the second-fewest points in the league and garnered 20 interceptions, while also standing among the NFL's best with 44 sacks.
Tennessee has been plagued by sloppy play on the offensive side as well, having committed 11 giveaways and a minus-five turnover ratio through the first four games. During last year's run to the AFC South title, the Titans were a plus-14 in turnover margin and gave the ball away a total of only 17 times.
Indianapolis holds a 16-12 lead in its all-time regular season series with Tennessee, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. As previously noted, the Titans were 31-21 home winners when the teams met in Week 8 of last season, a victory that enabled Tennessee to win the AFC South by a game over Indianapolis. The Colts were 23-0 victors in the return matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 17, but both teams rested several starters in that contest in preparation for the postseason. The Colts, who are 9-3 against the Titans since 2003, last won in Tennessee in 2007.
The only postseason meeting between the two was in a 1999 AFC Divisional Playoff, when Tennessee scored a 19-16 road victory en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher has a 6-9 record against Indianapolis, including the aforementioned playoff victory. Caldwell will be meeting both Fisher and Tennessee for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Manning (1336 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) just keeps getting better with age, as the legendary 12th-year pro has completed a sizzling 70.8 percent of his throws through the first four weeks and has flawlessly guided an offense that tops the NFL with an average of 334 passing yards per game. He hasn't done it alone, however. Standout wide receiver Reggie Wayne (26 receptions, 399 yards, 3 TD) and field-stretching tight end Dallas Clark (26 receptions, 364 yards, 2 TD) have also put together tremendous starts, while young wideouts Pierre Garcon (10 receptions, 2 TD) and Austin Collie (12 receptions, 1 TD) have emerged as viable threats in place of the injured Anthony Gonzalez, who's been sidelined with a sprained knee suffered in the season opener. Running backs Joseph Addai (183 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 3 total TD) and Donald Brown (132 rushing yards, 2 TD, 5 receptions) are also capable receivers out of the backfield, although neither has made a huge impact running the ball. The Colts come in ranked just 29th overall in rushing offense (84.0 ypg).
Sunday's matchup bodes well for another prolific passing day out of Manning. Not only are the Titans yielding a whopping 282.3 yards per game through the air, but the team has had to endure a litany of injuries to a thin secondary. Top cover man Cortland Finnegan (17 tackles, 1 INT) and nickel back Vincent Fuller (9 tackles, 1 INT) both missed last week's 37-17 loss to Jacksonville with a hamstring strain and fractured right arm, respectively, while starting corner Nick Harper (31 tackles) was forced to leave the game with bruised ribs. The club is hopeful that Finnegan, a Pro Bowl participant in 2008, will be able to suit up on Sunday, but Harper's status is less certain. The depleted backfield was toasted for 323 yards and three scores by the Jaguars' David Garrard, with rookies Jason McCourty (7 tackles) and Ryan Mouton (9 tackles) enduring trials by fire when forced into more prominent roles. Tennessee has been awfully tough in defending the run, having given up a scant 79.8 yards per game (8th overall) and 2.8 yards per rush, and held Jacksonville star Maurice Jones-Drew to 14 yards on six totes a week ago.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Look for the Titans to attempt to keep Manning and the Colts' quick-strike offense on the sidelines by employing a heavy dose of running backs Chris Johnson (434 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 3 total TD) and LenDale White (82 rushing yards, 1 TD, 2 receptions). The fleet-footed Johnson has been the unquestioned bright spot during Tennessee's dreadful start, with the second- year sensation entering this week's play leading the NFL in rushing yards and averaging a super 6.3 yards per touch. A strong running game should also ease the burden on struggling quarterback Kerry Collins (914 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT), who's thrown four interceptions and completed just over 50 percent of his attempts in the team's last two losses. A new-look receiving corps has played solidly, as talented rookie first-round pick Kenny Britt (17 receptions, 271 yards) put up career-bests of seven catches and 105 yards in the Jacksonville game and offseason pickup Nate Washington (14 receptions) has hauled in a touchdown pass in three straight weeks. The Titans are presently averaging 137 rushing yards per game, the ninth-best mark in the league.
Johnson will be taking on an Indianapolis stop unit that's made great improvement in containing the run in two games since being gashed for 239 rushing yards in a narrow Week 2 win at Miami. The Colts have since held Arizona and Seattle to a combined 73 yards total on the ground, with the Seahawks mustering a paltry 49 on 19 attempts last Sunday. Those two impressive performances have come without the services of dependable middle linebacker Gary Brackett (17 tackles), who's due back from a sprained knee this week. If Indianapolis can keep Johnson from running wild, it'll be able to unleash the fearsome pass-rushing duo of ends Dwight Freeney (10 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and Robert Mathis (15 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Mathis had three sacks and forced two fumbles in a dominating display against the Seahawks, while Freeney managed to register his fifth sack of the year despite seeing limited action due to a quadriceps injury. Indy's eighth-rated pass defense (201.8 ypg) will likely be without one of its main contributors on Sunday, with cornerback Kelvin Hayden (10 tackles, 2 PD) slated to miss a third straight game with a sore hamstring.
With Manning leading the league in passing and the short-handed Titans secondary giving up yards in bunches, it goes without staying that the three- time league MVP should be in all lineups this week. Wayne and Clark are no- brainer starts as well, and Garcon's turned into a worthwhile option as a No. 2 receiver with his playmaking ability. Even though both Addai and Brown split touches in the backfield, both Indy backs have good value as flex players. The duo has combined for five touchdowns already this season. Johnson is clearly a must-use, but he may be the only one on the Tennessee roster. Britt and Washington do offer potential at the wide receiver spot, as the former is emerging as Collins' go-to guy and the latter has three straight games with a touchdown catch. With the Colts' ability to generate pressure and the Titans fielding an immobile and turnover-prone quarterback, the Indianapolis defense becomes an intriguing alternative.
With their season already hanging in the balance, you can expect the Titans to come out swinging and give their division rivals everything they've got for 60 minutes. That still may not be enough, however, with Manning playing at such an extraordinary high level and Tennessee's obvious problems on defense. Look for the Titans to take a page out of the Miami playbook and attempt to play keep-away with a ball-control approach, a strategy that nearly enabled the Dolphins to pull off a win a few weeks back. Manning was able to overcome that tactic, however, and it would be no surprise if he and his Indianapolis teammates are able to fend off a spirited charge from a determined Tennessee team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 27, Titans 20
10/08 18:05:54 ET