The Tennessee Titans' present took a tangible hit last week, but their future could be better because of it.
Though the Titans are a game out of the AFC's last Wild Card slot after a 22-17 home loss to New Orleans this past Sunday, the relief performance of rookie quarterback Jake Locker makes it seem like dreams of perennial playoff contention won't be hyperbole.
Pressed into service when veteran Matt Hasselbeck strained his calf in the second quarter, Locker completed 13-of-29 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown against the Saints, and added a six-yard touchdown run.
Hasselbeck did not participate when Tennessee reconvened for practice on Wednesday and remains questionable for Sunday's visit to Lucas Oil Stadium to meet the winless Indianapolis Colts. The Titans are second to the already- clinched Houston Texans in the AFC South standings and trail the New York Jets, who lead two other 7-6 teams and the 6-7 San Diego Chargers, in the chase for the final Wild Card.
If Hasselbeck can't go, it'll be start No. 1 for Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
"We are not worried about [Hasselbeck] knowing the offense or knowing what we are doing as much as the fact the he physically feels comfortable doing those things," Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak said. "He knows if he doesn't feel right and he will be honest with us, so we still feel good about him and hope that he will be ready to go Sunday."
Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell said the Colts are preparing for both passers.
"Hasselbeck has been around a long time now," Caldwell said. "He is a tough guy and we are anticipating that he will be back, but if not then we will certainly be ready for Locker as well."
The Colts, who won 10 or more games for nine straight seasons between 2002 and 2010, have never dropped the first 14 games in any of their 58 campaigns. The streak's extinction hangs on the arms of quarterbacks Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter, neither of whom have won an NFL start.
Orlovsky started seven games for the only team in league history to go 0-16, the 2008 Detroit Lions.
The dual quarterback question comes in the same week where injured incumbent Peyton Manning, who'd not missed a game in his 14-year career prior to this season, had increased his throwing regimen while continuing recovery from a pair of neck surgeries.
Indianapolis is 31st in the league in total offense and was held to 50 rushing yards last week in a 24-10 loss at Baltimore -- its lowest ground total since gaining 40 against Dallas on Dec. 5, 2010. The Colts did rush for a season-high 158 yards against Tennessee in the fellow division members' first meeting on Oct. 30, a 27-10 loss in Nashville.
"Obviously, every time you go out, you want to win," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "It's something to build on for the future, and we want to show some of the young guys what it's like to win and show guys this is what we're all about."
Indianapolis holds a 20-13 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Tennessee and had defeated the Titans five consecutive times prior to its 17- point loss at LP Field back in Week 8. Tennessee hasn't had much recent success as the visitor in this set, however, having been dealt defeats in three straight and seven of its last trips to Indianapolis, with its lone victory over that span a 16-10 decision in 2007. The Titans came close in their latest stop at Lucas Oil Stadium, however, with the Colts coming through in a 23-20 squeaker in the 2010 regular season finale on Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal as time expired.
Since the AFC South was instituted in 2002, Tennessee has recorded a home-and- home sweep of Indianapolis just once in its history, which came during the division's first year of existence.
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.
Caldwell has gone 4-1 against Tennessee since replacing Tony Dungy prior to the 2009 season, while Munchak won his initial battle with both the Colts and Caldwell with the above-noted outcome on Oct. 30.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Hasselbeck is 2-0 against the Colts for his career and has completed 40-of-54 passes (74.1 percent) for 392 yards with 3 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 112.6 passer rating in those games. In 20 career contests against AFC South foes, running back Chris Johnson averages 85.2 rushing yards per game and has averaged 98 yards per game on the ground in December during his career. The speedy standout has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in three of Tennessee's six road tests in 2011. Johnson needs two just rushing touchdowns to join Hall of Famer Earl Campbell (73) and Eddie George (64) as the only players in franchise history to reach 40 for a career. Wide receiver Nate Washington had a career- best 130 receiving yards last week and is tied with Atlanta's Roddy White for the NFL lead with 25 receptions on third down. He has established career-bests in catches (59) and receiving yards (798) in 2011. Fellow wideout Damian Williams is averaging 20.7 yards per catch in the past two games (6 catches, 124 yards) and has career-highs in receptions (33), receiving yards (473) and touchdown grabs (5) in 2011.
On defense, Colts end Dwight Freeney registered his 100th career sack last week and has 13 in 17 career games against Tennessee. Opposite-side Robert Mathis needs a half-sack to reach 80 for his career, meanwhile. Rookie safety Joe Lefeged, an undrafted free agent, is tied for second among NFL first-year players with two interceptions this season, while second-year linebacker Kavell Conner has 91 tackles and a forced fumble on the year.
Statistically speaking, the Titans on offense are 22nd in scoring (20.5 ppg), 19th in total yards (323.5 ypg), 14th in passing (229.5 ypg) and 30th in rushing (93.9 ypg). On defense, Indianapolis is dead last in points allowed (29.4 ppg), 28th in yards allowed (384.8 ypg), 21st against the pass (240.5 ypg) and 30th against the run (144.3 ypg).
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
In two starts replacing an ineffective Painter, Orlovsky has completed 47-of-74 passes (63.5 percent) for 489 yards with three touchdowns and an 84.8 quarterback rating. Running back Donald Brown has a rushing touchdown in two of his past three games, while backfield mate Joseph Addai has three rushing scores in his past three outings against the Titans. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne needs seven catches to reach 850 for his career and counterpart Pierre Garcon (851 yards) needs 149 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the first time as a professional. Garcon has six touchdown catches this season, tied for a career- best (2010), and three scoring grabs in his past three games against the Titans. Another wide receiver, Austin Collie, tied a career-high with two touchdown receptions against the Titans in a Colts' win in October of 2009, while tight end Jacob Tamme posted his first scoring catch of the season last week.
On defense, Tennessee rookie tackle Karl Klug, a fifth-round pick in this past April's draft, has three sacks in his past two games and end Jason Jones had a sack in the Titans' win over the Colts in Week 8. Safety Michael Griffin had an interception in that contest. Veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud had 57 tackles and an interception through the first eight games, but was placed on injured reserve this week after missing four of the last five tilts with a groin problem.
By the numbers, Indianapolis is 29th in scoring (14.2 ppg), 31st in total yards (283.4 ypg), 27th in passing (188.2 ypg) and 28th in rushing (95.2 ypg). On defense, the Titans are sixth in scoring (19.3), 22nd in yards allowed (362.2 ypg) and 20th in both pass (240.4 ypg) and rushing (121.8 ypg) defense.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Colts' chances at an initial victory of 2011 might spike if Tennessee is forced to go with No. 2 Locker or even green No. 3 quarterback Rusty Smith, who's not taken a snap this season and thrown just 40 passes in his career. Locker also missed some practice time this week with sore ribs, enabling Smith to receive some first-team snaps, and how healthy and effective whomever the Titans send out under center will help determine Sunday's outcome.
That said, Tennessee's spot in the playoff race gives the team everything to play for in Week 15, while the Colts' only motivation is avoiding the ugliness of a winless season. The Titans would have an obvious advantage if the hosts come out flat.
Johnson had a pair of 100-yard games before stumbling to just 23 yards against New Orleans last week. He may get back to triple-digits against the league's 30th-ranked rush defense, and Tennessee is 4-0 this season when its star back surpasses the century mark in a game.
Connoisseurs of the "trap game" theory might look twice at this one with the inconsistent Titans hitting the road -- perhaps with a rookie or a third- stringer at quarterback -- against a skidding foe while in the midst of a playoff run. But even with Locker or Smith at the helm, it seems Johnson's presence alone would be enough to tip the scales toward the presumably more talented visitors.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 24, Colts 14