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NFL Preview - Tennessee (6-9) at Indianapolis (9-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Thanks to a well-timed three-game winning streak, the Indianapolis Colts are a victory away from matching the NFL record for most consecutive postseason appearances.
They'll try to tie that mark of nine playoff seasons in a row this Sunday with a win-and-in game versus the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The 9-6 Colts were in danger of being eliminated from the race for the AFC South crown by Jacksonville two weekends ago, but kept themselves alive with a 34-24 home win over the Jaguars. That gave the Colts control of their own destiny in the division, and they didn't waste that opportunity last Sunday, posting a 31-26 victory in Oakland.
With the Jaguars losing in overtime to the Redskins in Week 16, the Colts can win the division title for the seventh time in eight seasons with a victory over the Titans or a loss by Jacksonville in Houston.
Should Indy get into a postseason for a ninth straight year, it would match the NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances set by Dallas from 1975-83.
"We have to try to find a way to win next week [versus the Titans]," said Colts Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning. "It's really hard to get a summary and try to put it in perspective. We've definitely dealt with different things. Maybe it's been different in years past, [we've had] different guys playing each week."
Though Manning threw three touchdown passes versus the Raiders, he was also picked off twice in the second half. However, the Colts' running game helped out with a season-best 191 rushing yards, giving the club back-to-back games of at least 150 yards on the ground for the first time since 2006.
Dominic Rhodes led the way with 98 yards on 17 carries, Joseph Addai returned from an eight-game absence due to a neck injury to add 45 yards on 12 carries and Donald Brown also ran the ball six times.
"I thought all three guys had pretty productive days, but Dom certainly got things rolling pretty well," said Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. "We just let him go a little bit with it, but overall when you look at their performance, I think it was a great collective effort."
The Titans don't have anything on the line in their regular-season finale, as last weekend's 34-14 loss in Kansas City officially eliminated them from the postseason. The loss was Tennessee's seventh in eight games and dropped the Titans to 6-9 on the season.
Kerry Collins should get the start again for the Titans in this one after becoming just the 12th quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 40,000 yards in a career during the loss to the Chiefs. He surpassed the milestone on a 53-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt, but had trouble enjoying the achievement after the blowout loss.
"It's hard to feel good about anything," said Collins afterwards. "I understand that it's a nice accomplishment and all that, but right now at this moment with the way [Sunday] went, the way the season has gone, it's not possible to feel good about it."
Titans return specialist and recent Pro Bowl selection Marc Mariani set a franchise record for kickoff return yards in a season, surpassing former Houston Oiler Bobby Jancik's mark of 1,317 set in 1963. Mariani, with 1,733 total return yards, needs just 62 combined kickoff and punt return yards in this one to break Derrick Mason's club record set in 2000.
A Titans' rally at home versus the Colts fell just short in a 30-28 setback the first time the clubs met this season, back on Dec. 9. Manning passed for over 300 yards with two touchdown throws in that one, while Collins had three touchdown passes of his own.
Indianapolis has won seven straight home games versus AFC South opponents.
Indianapolis holds a 19-12 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Tennessee and has defeated the Titans four consecutive times following its two-point verdict in Nashville back in early December. The Colts have also bested Tennessee in six of the past seven meetings held in Indianapolis, including a 27-17 victory last year, and the Titans haven't beaten the Colts on the road since a 16-10 decision in the 2007 regular-season finale. Tennessee's last win over Indianapolis of any kind was a 31-21 ousting at LP Field on Oct. 27, 2008.
The only postseason encounter 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 6-12 record against Indianapolis, including the aforementioned playoff victory. Caldwell is 3-0 against both Fisher and Tennessee since replacing Tony Dungy prior to the 2009 season.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee's strength last year was certainly its run game, but a 29th-ranked pass attack (187.8 ypg) has left running back Chris Johnson little room to operate. Johnson (1325 rushing yards, 11 TD) ran for just 58 yards on 14 carries thanks to an early deficit and has been held to fewer than 60 yards rushing in three of his last five games. He needs just six yards to surpass LaDainian Tomlinson (4,564) for the fourth-most rushing yards in the first three seasons of an NFL career, however. Collins (1523 passing yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) threw the ball 37 times versus the Chiefs, completing 14 passes for 235 yards. He completed touchdown passes to Britt (37 receptions, 8 TD) and tight end Jared Cook (22 receptions, 1 TD), but was also picked off twice and had one of those mistakes returned 54 yards for a score in the second quarter. Cook set career bests with five catches for 98 yards, while Britt added 89 yards on four grabs. With 690 receiving yards on the season, he is just 12 shy of his career high of 701 set in 2009. Nate Washington (41 receptions, 6 TD) finished with three catches for 37 yards in last week's loss, while fellow wideout Randy Moss (27 receptions, 5 TD) went without a catch for a third straight game.
For a second straight week, the Colts defense shut down a talented running game. After holding the Jaguars to just 67 yards two weekends ago, Darren McFadden and the Raiders managed to post a mere 80 yards rushing. Indianapolis still ranks 27th in the league against the run (132.1 ypg) and is just 23rd in scoring defense at 24.5 points per game. Defensive end Robert Mathis (56 tackles, 11 sacks) had 1 1/2 sacks versus the Raiders and fellow end Dwight Freeney (24 tackles) also had a sack. The duo are slated to start in the Pro Bowl for the AFC, and Freeney is just one sack of shy of reaching double-digits for a third straight season. Mathis, meanwhile, has a sack in two straight and has already reached 10 sacks for a fourth time in his career. Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the way last week with nine tackles, while safety Antoine Bethea (102 tackles, 1 INT) added eight and linebacker Gary Brackett (71 tackles) had seven. Indy has just one interception over its last six games and has a minus-four turnover ratio on the season. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden (61 tackles) safety Aaron Francisco (56 tackles) and injured corner Jerraud Powers (53 tackles) are all tied for the club lead with two picks each.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Indianapolis ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per game with 382.3, but is just 30th in rushing (92.1 ypg) despite its recent surge. Still, a talented three- headed attack of Addai (451 rushing yards, 4 TD), Rhodes and Brown (488 rushing yards, 2 TD) will take a lot of pressure off Manning (4436 passing yards, 31 TD, 17 INT), who has his highest interception total since getting picked off 19 times in 2002. Rhodes was playing in just his second game since rejoining the Colts. Manning threw for just 179 yards on 16-of-30 passing versus Oakland and completed touchdown strikes to wide receivers Blair White (32 receptions, 5 TD) and Pierre Garcon (60 receptions, 5 TD) as well as tight end Jacob Tamme (60 receptions, 4 TD), who led the club with seven receptions for 78 yards. Reggie Wayne (102 receptions, 1287 yards, 5 TD), selected as a starter for the Pro Bowl, had three catches for 40 yards. Manning will accompany Wayne to the all- star game for a ninth straight year, unless the Colts make it to the Super Bowl, and joins Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks in league history selected to at least 11 Pro Bowls. Wayne is just three catches short of passing his career high of 104 receptions set in 2007.
The Titans and their 28th-ranked pass defense (251.7 ypg) figure to have their hands full in this one, especially corners Alterraun Verner (91 tackles, 3 INT) and Cortland Finnegan (91 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) as well as safeties Chris Hope (97 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Michael Griffin (103 tackles, 4 INT). Despite those struggles, defensive end Jason Babin (57 tackles, 12.5 sacks) has had time to record 3 1/2 sacks over his last three games. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday and needs just a half-sack to post the most in the season by a Titan since Jevon Kearse had 14 1/2 in 1999. Tennessee didn't have a good showing overall versus the Chiefs, allowing the game's first 24 points that included touchdown plays on Kansas City's first two possessions, and 327 total yards of offense in the first half. Hope, Verner and linebacker Stephen Tulloch (155 tackles, 1 INT) all led the way with 10 tackles, while linebacker Will Witherspoon (85 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) had eight as well as an interception. Hope donated a fumble recovery to the losing cause.
If your fantasy league's season stretches into Week 17, Colts owners will be happy to see that the club is playing for something rather than facing the usual scenario of resting its starters prior to the playoffs. Manning, Wayne, Garcon and Tamme are all must-starts, though a three-way split among the running backs makes it tough to nail down a fantasy starter for this week. The Colts defense has had its troubles this year, but draws a good matchup. Kicker Adam Vinatieri has missed two field goals this year and none since Week 6.
Though motivation might be a factor, it is tough to sit Johnson on any week. Still, who knows how much he touch the ball against a resurgent Colts run defense. Collins makes too many mistakes, though Britt is a solid play as a receiver. Cook has also come on strong and could fill some holes at the tight end spot. The Titans' defense struggled to contain Manning the previous meeting and isn't a recommended play. Kicker Rob Bironas has made 18 straight field goals and leads the NFL with a 95.7 percent accuracy.
It's been a while since we've seen the Colts play such a meaningful game this late in the regular season, but they will be going all out in this one. That is bad news for the Titans, who are just trying to end their brutal 2010 season. The Jaguars play at the same time as the Colts, so they won't know if they back-doored their way into the postseason until late in the day. With that being the case, expect Manning and company to put forth an all-out offensive attack on Tennessee to punch a playoff ticket for itself.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 34, Titans 20
12/30 19:03:48 ET