Titans Capable Despite Missing Post-Season, Colts Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – Without question, Dwight Freeney said the Colts will be ready Sunday.
The way he sees it, there's not much choice.
Freeney, the Colts' nine-year veteran defensive end, said while the game's stakes would ensure the Colts be ready whoever the opponent, the fact that they're playing the Tennessee Titans does make it a bit more necessary the Colts be prepared. For anything.
The Colts know that's necessary.
And they know from hard-learned experience.
The Titans, while eliminated from playoff contention by a 34-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, won eight of their final 10 games last season, and followed that with victories in five of their first seven games this season.
It wasn't until a six-game losing streak in November and early December that the Titans fell from post-season contention.
"It's not like it's a team we don't know," Freeney said this week as the AFC South-leading Colts (9-6) prepared to play the Titans (6-9) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
"It doesn't matter what their record is. For the most part, they play us tough. It's going to be another tough game. Teams in your division always play you tough, so it's going to be a battle.
"They're a dangerous team at all times."
That's true for many reasons.
First, the Titans are not only a division rival, they're one with dangerous offensive skill players such as running back Chris Johnson and wide receivers Kenny Britt and Randy Moss.
Second, the Titans have a history of close games against the Colts.
Third, the Titans' head coach is Jeff Fisher.
Fisher, who is finishing his 16th full season in the position, is not only experienced, he has a reputation for getting the most out of his teams. He led the Titans to AFC South titles in 2002 and 2008 – the only seasons the Colts have not won the South – and coached the Titans to the Super Bowl following the 1999 season.
But Fisher is more than a successful coach.
He's one with a reputation for going at times outside conventional wisdom to find creative ways to be competitive, particularly in situations such as the Titans face Sunday, when they will be out of post-season contention.
"I think you're always prepared for that every single week," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "You're supposed to be ready for that. Like I've said all season long, you never know what identity each game will take on.
"It just depends on the score and the flow of the game and what happens. I still think in these division games it comes down to execution. We need to do a good job of it."
Fisher's approach in a particular game still stands out in the Titans-Colts series.
The year was 2004.
After two seasons in which the Colts and Titans had competed closely for the AFC South title, with the Colts winning the title in 2003 and the Titans winning the previous season, the Colts entered an early December game 9-3 with the Titans at 4-8.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had thrown 24 touchdown passes in five games, and the Titans entered the game in the RCA Dome without starters such as quarterback Steve McNair, offensive tackle Brad Hopkins and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
The Titans tried three onside kicks, recovering two, and went for it on fourth down four times. Tennessee held three seven-point leads in the first half before Indianapolis pulled away for a 51-24 victory.
For those who played in the game, it's a vivid memory.
"Jeff does a great job of mixing it up and keeping it interesting no matter what their situation is," Freeney said. "It's going to be a great game. We have to be ready for anything."
With the Titans out of post-season contention, Fisher said the Titans may employ different lineups than normal Sunday.
"I'm not going to disclose who for competitive reasons, but we're probably going to have some younger players in the game," he said.
He also said yes, there could be plays – particularly when the Titans are on offense – outside what many would consider the team's normal game plan.
"Probably a pretty good chance," Fisher said. "Defensively, obviously, you have to be smart taking into considering who you're playing against, but offensively there might be an opunity to do some things."
With or without trick plays, Colts players said the Titans' offense is dangerous. Not only has Britt emerged as one of the NFL's top young receivers, but Johnson remains one of the NFL's top game-breaking running backs.
He rushed for 2,006 yards last season, and while defenses bunched close to the line of scrimmage have reduced that production this season, he is third in the NFL in rushing with 1,325 yards and 11 touchdowns on 296 carries.
"He's a tough runner – definitely one of the best in the league, but you have to have more than one guy tackling," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said. "He's going to try to bounce things out. We're going to have to tackle well. We're going to have to run to the ball."
Caldwell and other Colts players said the reality is the nature of the Colts-Titans series is that whatever the personnel, records matter little, and playoff possibilities don't matter much, either.
And as for incentive, there will be plenty for each team.
"We know they'll be excited about playing us," Caldwell said. "We know they're going to be tough, and it's going to be a hard-nosed game. We know that obviously you can expect anything in this ballgame. We had an experience similar to this a few years back. History tells you you'd better be ready for anything.
"Our job is to play well and rely on our fundamentals and techniques to get us through."