Published December 10, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis took a small step toward a far bigger goal Sunday — making the playoffs.
All they need now is one more win.
With Chuck Pagano watching inside Lucas Oil Stadium for the third straight home game, and a sold-out crowd ready to celebrate, the Colts rallied behind Andrew Luck's stable play and Adam Vinatieri's strong right foot to rally from a 13-point halftime deficit for a 27-23 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
"It feels great," outside linebacker Dwight Freeney said. "Obviously, night and day compared to last year. The feeling around the locker room is tremendous, but that being said, by no means am I or are we satisfied with where we are."
That feeling could change soon.
Sunday's losses by Cincinnati and Pittsburgh put the Colts on the cusp of another remarkable milestone in this stunning turnaround season. With one win in their final three games, Indy (9-4) would become the second team in league history to lose 14 or more games one season and make the playoffs the next. Miami did it in 2008.
And shockingly, just getting in isn't all that's at stake for the Colts. There's still a long shot chance they could win the division — if Indy sweeps its final three games, two against Houston, and the Texans lose either Monday night at New England or Dec. 23 against Minnesota.
But the Colts are so young, they're still trying to figure out all the nuances about this playoff chase.
"I'll talk to Reggie (Wayne), talk to coaches that have been there," Andrew Luck said. "They'll tell us how it is."
The hotshot rookie has spent the first 13 weeks showing everyone how good he is, and though the numbers weren't sensational Sunday, the result was pretty much the same.
Luck already has six fourth-quarter comebacks this season, one more than Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 and Vince Young in 2006 — the highest single-season total by a rookie quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. It came on the same day he passed Peyton Manning for the most yards passing by a rookie in Colts history and moved into second among all NFL rookies, trailing only Carolina's Cam Newton (4,051 in 2011). Luck has 3,792 yards with three games to play.
The milestones don't end with Luck.
Wayne caught six passes for 64 yards and one touchdown, passing Andre Reed for 10th on the career receptions list. Wayne is at 956, five more than Reed. And Vinatieri added to his legacy as the NFL's best clutch kicker with the 53-yarder to give Indy the lead with 6:23 left and a 40-yarder to seal it with 3:48 to go.
Indy has now won a league-high eight one-possession games.
Winning this way is no big deal to the Colts.
"Everybody on the team — offensively, defensively, special teams — just plays football. They're not worried about the scoreboard too much, not worried about what's going on," Luck explained. "They're aware of the situations, and we just go out there and play football to the best of our abilities. It's just not overthinking all the situations."
If Tennessee (4-9) didn't understand that much before, they certainly do now, after another stinging defeat at the hands of the Colts.
A year ago, the 0-13 Colts derailed the Titans' playoff plans. In October, Indy did it again, rallying to force overtime, winning the coin toss and then running right down the field. It ended with Vick Ballard's twisting dive into the end zone.
This time, Tennessee could only blame itself.
Cassius Vaughn picked off Jake Locker and scored on a 3-yard interception return to give Indy a 21-20 lead late in the third quarter. Locker's second pick of the day set up Vinatieri's shorter field goal, and then came the biggest mistake of all.
With the Titans down four and 3:22 to play, Chris Johnson ran 6 yards for a first down. The problem: Coach Mike Munchak and Locker both thought Johnson had been ruled down short of the first down. After the chains moved, Locker ran a quarterback sneak for zero yards, then threw two incompletions and the Titans punted. They never got the ball back.
Locker was 22 of 35 for 262 yards with one TD and the two picks, but Munchak took the blame.
"We were in no huddle and we gave him the code word for a sneak because originally when he went down, it didn't appear that he had the first down," Munchak said. "Obviously, when they marked it, he already had the play and he just ran it. We were trying to contact him, but with all of the chaos, he just assumed that he still needed the first down."
Luck and the Colts had their share of miscues in the first half, including Luck's poor decision to throw the ball as he was being pulled to the ground. Will Witherspoon picked it off and ran it back 40 yards to give Tennessee a 17-7 lead late in the first half. Rob Bironas made it 20-7 with a 31-yard field goal in the final minute.
Indy rebounded in the second half, though.
Luck opened the third quarter by leading the Colts on a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Delone Carter's 1-yard TD run. Luck finished 16 of 34 for 196 yards with one TD and two picks.
The game turned when Pat McAfee booted a 52-yard punt out of bounds at the Titans 1 and Vaughn jumped in front of Nate Washington and picked off the pass as he dived into the end zone.
All Tennessee could muster after that was a 25-yard field goal from Bironas, while Luck and Vinatieri did their usual thing and put the Colts on the verge of the playoffs.
"That's him. He's resilient," interim coach Bruce Arians said of Luck. "I can't say enough about him because I think that's what separates him from the young quarterbacks is the ability to overcome bad plays."
NOTES: Titans receiver Kenny Britt had a season-high 143 yards on eight catches, while Johnson ran 19 times for 44 yards. ... Ballard ran for a season-high 94 yards after the team rushed for only 12 yards in the first half. ... The Titans are 0-5 all-time at Lucas Oil Stadium. ... Indy played the second half without C Samson Satele (ankle) and RT Winston Justice (biceps). ... Titans TE Jared Cook left with a right shoulder injury.
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