INDIANAPOLIS – The month of December has provided the Colts with a very busy schedule. After consecutive road games at New England and Baltimore, the club will finish the season with three consecutive AFC South outings, home dates with Tennessee and Houston and a road game at Jacksonville.
There is no time to rest for Indianapolis as it plays two games in five days starting Sunday when the 7-6 Tennessee Titans visit Lucas Oil Stadium.
The visit will mark the second meeting between these teams in 2011. The Titans defeated the Colts, 27-10, back on October 30.
The Titans will be looking for their first sweep of the Colts since 2002. Who is under center on Sunday is a matter of some conjecture.
In last week's 22-17 loss to the Saints, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck left the game early in the second quarter with a calf injury. First-round draft pick Jake Locker entered the game and went 13-of-29 passing for 282 yards and one touchdown for the Titans. Locker also had six carries for 36 yards, and he added a six-yard scoring run.
"It's just one of those things where he reacted to the ball being batted, and he kind of moved weird and he just felt a little pop when it happened," Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak said of the Hasselbeck injury. "Obviously, no one touched him or hit him at the time. (Steve) McNair did that one time with us throwing a screen. He was just backing up and popped it, but it was a lot worse than this one. It's amazing how easy that happens."
Munchak said if he is healthy, then Hasselbeck will start. Hasselbeck was limited in practice on Thursday after not working on Wednesday. The veteran quarterback could work in today's practice. Munchak indicated Thursday to observers covering the team that he is assuming Hasselbeck will play unless something untoward transpires.
Last week in relief of Hasselbeck, Locker performed admirably in extensive playing time. Locker hit wide receiver Nate Washington for a 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarterback, but his comeback bid came up just short.
For Washington, it was the 59th straight game he has caught a pass, and he is tied for the NFL lead with 25 receptions on third down. He finished the New Orleans game with six receptions for 130 yards and one touchdown. It was his fourth career 100-yard outing.
Whether it is Hasselbeck or Locker at the controls on Sunday, is it expected running back Chris Johnson will be involved heavily in the attack.
Despite coming off a 23-yard rushing output against the Saints, Johnson had 190- and 153-yard efforts in the two previous games.
The terms 'explosive' and 'electric' go hand-in-hand in describing Johnson's talents. He is one of only six running backs in NFL history with at least nine touchdowns of 45 yards. His nine scores from that distance tie Ollie Matson and Paul Lowe, while ranking behind Barry Sanders (18), Jim Brown (13) and O.J. Simpson (10).
"I'm feeling it," Johnson said. "I've kind of been on the same page as my offensive linemen. We get the opportunity to run the ball and if we're able to stay in our offense, then we pretty much can do some good things."
Johnson has rushed for 130 or more yards in three of his past five outings, and he also has rushed for 100 yards in three of six road games this season.
The Colts did hold the Pro Bowler to just 34 yards in late October, but this time around he will not be splitting carries with Javon Ringer. The Michigan State product is out with a hand injury.
"It's been a lot of downs this year, but it's still a situation where we've got time to turn it around and get some positive things, and hopefully get a chance to make the playoffs," Johnson said.
Defensively, the Titans have had four rookies play crucial roles in 2011 led by defensive tackle Karl Klug. After two sacks against the Saints last week, Klug leads the team with six sacks in 2011.
The Titans defense held the Colts to 10 points in their previous meeting and allows 19 points a game, a total good for sixth in the NFL.
For the Colts, it is a welcomed trip home after facing two of the toughest teams in the AFC on the road to start December.
The Colts have won seven of their past eight home games against the Titans, including a 23-20 fight last December in the season finale. A 43-yard game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri decided the fray.
Quarterback Dan Orlovsky will be making his first start in front of the fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, and he has found a connection with wide receiver Pierre Garcon. The speedy Garcon is just 149 yards away from his first-ever 1,000-yard season in the NFL.
For Orlovsky and Garcon, coming home is a chance to play in front of friendly fans. It is an opportunity they will have only one more time after Sunday.
"I think it's probably one of the better crowds that I've been in front of," Orlovsky said. "Having the opportunity to play here when I was in Detroit and then the few games that I've been around at home this year, I think the crowd speaks for itself in how enthusiastic and passionate they are about their team. It will be a nice opportunity to go out and play in front of them. I know it's my responsibility to give them something to cheer about, too. Hopefully it will be a win-win for both sides."
Titans 27, Colts 10 – October 30, 2011
In Nashville for their first AFC South game since the opening week of the season, the Colts could not overcome a slow first-half start in battling Tennessee. The Titans took an early lead in the first quarter when kicker Rob Bironas hit a 51-yard field goal. The teams traded punts for the next six series after the Bironas kick. However, with the Colts backed up against their own goal line, punter Pat McAfee had his next attempt blocked and it was recovered by cornerback Jason McCourty for a Titans touchdown. That was a springboard to a 17-point second quarter for the Titans. Bironas added a 50-yard field goal two drives later. The Tennessee offense would get going thanks to a Michael Griffin interception which gave the Titans a chance for a late score before halftime. In 1:28, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would lead the offense on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that was capped off when wide receiver Nate Washington scored on a three-yard run. The Colts came out of halftime with a comeback on their minds and got things started with an Adam Vinatieri 22-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. After the Colts defense forced a punt on the following possession, running back Donald Brown finished off an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to put the score at 20-10 with 13:29 left in the game. Quarterback Curtis Painter was intercepted on the club's next possession by linebacker Barrett Rudd. Tennessee converted the takeaway as quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit wide receiver Nate Washington for a 14-yard touchdown reception, giving the home team a three-score lead with just over five minutes to play. The 27-10 score held the rest of the way.
Titans running back Chris Johnson against the Colts defense: The last two times the Colts and Titans have met, the defense has neutralized the electric Johnson. In October, Johnson was held to 34 yards on 14 carries as he and fellow running back Javon Ringer split the carries. Indianapolis held Johnson to 39 yards last year in the second meeting. Johnson broke out of his lull three weeks ago with a 190-yard effort against Tampa Bay. He followed that up with 153 yards against Buffalo the next week. The Colts could be without linebacker Philip Wheeler. Wheeler left the Ravens game with an injury and has missed practice time this week. Leading tackler Pat Angerer did return last week to the middle of the unit and is expected to play against the Titans.
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky against the Titans defense: After a pair of road starts, Orlovsky will make his first start in front of a home crowd on Sunday afternoon. In the first game between these teams it was Curtis Painter under center. Orlovsky was very effective in his first start against New England, but the veteran was sacked four times by Baltimore last week. The Titans gave up 250 yards passing in the first game between these teams and Orlovsky has seen the Titans before while he was with Houston from 2009-10.
-The Colts are 7-2 at home against the Titans since division realignment began in 2002.
-Colts center Jeff Saturday is expected to play in his 195th career game on Sunday. He is fifth on the Colts' all-time list, and he can tie punter Rohn Stark (197) by starting the last three games.
-Colts defensive end Robert Mathis is a half sack away from 80 in his career.
-Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney has 13 career sacks against the Titans, the second-most he has had against any opponent (15.5, Houston).
-Indianapolis is third in the league with 68.2 percent of kickoffs going for touchbacks (73.3, Carolina; 71.4, Denver).
-The Titans have allowed 19 sacks this season which is the second-fewest in the NFL.
-The last time the Titans had two straight wins over the Colts was 2007-08. Tennessee swept the Colts in 2002, the only time Indianapolis has been swept by a divisional for since 2002 Realignment.
-Titans tackle Michael Roos is scheduled to make his 110th straight start on Sunday.
-Former Colts offensive guard Jake Scott has started 117 straight games, including 55 straight with the Colts.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on how he assesses the Tennessee Titans):
"They keep getting better, that's the key. Their lineup has been pretty much the same since the last time we played them. It's the same offensive line. The backfield is the same, same receiving corps and they've been able to improve little-by-little each and every week. They're playing really sound. I think they're plus-five in terms of their turnover ratio, so that's obviously very, very important. It shows you they're not making a whole lot of mistakes in terms of turnovers, and they're getting some as well. From a defensive standpoint they are solid, and they are not allowing teams to have a lot of big plays. Last week the (New Orleans) Saints struggled with them a bit from time to time. They put them in a number of long-yardage situations and they played well. In the kicking game, they are always good. (Marc) Mariani is doing a great job in terms of returns, giving them an advantage in terms of field position. They're kicking the ball well. They're punting it well and they're a threat to block a punt at any time. They have really developed into a real solid football team."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on facing all of the AFC South opponents for a second time):
"Obviously, we're coming up on a stretch where we have three of our division opponents in a row, and certainly we do know something about their personnel. There are some guys that we don't know much about. Certainly we don't know much about (Jake) Locker. We've seen him run around and play, but this will be an opportunity for us to get a little bit closer look at him. I know he's a very fine player and he runs extremely well. There is some benefit to having played them once but between the times that we've played one another, some things change in terms of personnel."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell(on if he is preparing for Titans quarterbacks Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck, or both):
"You have to at least look at both. Obviously, (Matt) Hasselbeck's been around. (He's a) tough guy, so you would anticipate that he'd probably play. You look at (Jake) Locker and he's a guy that everybody understands and knows that he runs extremely well. That's probably an understatement, because he's fast. He also can throw the ball. He made some unbelievable throws against the Saints that were very, very nice (with) good touch. He's a very, very capable young quarterback who certainly seems to have a pretty good feel for what they're doing."
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky(on looking forward to playing in front of the home crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium):
"Yeah, I do. I've only been around the home crowd for six games or something like that, maybe not even that. I know what the community stands for in this town, the expectation level that they have and the teams that they've been able to watch play for a long time. I think it's a great crowd. Hopefully, we give them something to cheer for. I think people throw around, in all aspects of sports, fair weather fans. A fan is someone who likes to watch something good. I think we need to do our part in giving them something to cheer for on Sunday, (something) to get excited about and leave the game feeling good. I'm excited to play in front of them. I know this team is important to them, and I know this rivalry in this division is important to them, too. It will be nice to get home and play in front of them."
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky(on facing the Titans for the second time and being more familiar with divisional foes):
"It's a different Tennessee team than kind of what I had known down in Houston (in 2009-10), a new head coach, same players but kind of different scheme-wise. (It's) still the same characters, guys who are going to play hard and play fast and play tough. They're going to hit you. I think I know what they stand for. I think a lot of people do. They're a good team, right in the heart of a playoff race for themselves. It's a tremendous test for us this weekend."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on the performance of the running game and running back Chris Johnson):
"It's better, but it's not consistent enough yet. I think last week if we had run the ball more and did some things, then we'd feel even better. We didn't and that game kind of went the way it went, and we put ourselves in position to win it by throwing it, so that's fine. Again, we haven't run very well against Indy in a while. We were efficient last game even though we won, but it wasn't anything over the top. We'd love to control the next three games by being able to run it, which is an obvious thing. He (Chris Johnson) is running well. He's into it and everything is positive as far as his health. There is no reason we can't run it, but we've just got to do a good job if we're going to win these three games, and we've got to win them to have a shot at the playoffs."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on the Titans' mentality that the playoffs start this week against Indianapolis):
"It has really been (the mindset) for us, the AFC games especially, we've played Baltimore and Buffalo. When you're a team that is sitting there right at the .500 mark, plus or minus a game over the last five or six weeks, then that's what you are. Now you're just running out of opportunities to put that run together. The two (wins) in-a-row gave us a shot, and winning last week would have been huge as far as our chances, but now it's down to the three division games, and we can't afford to (lose). Could we lose one and still get in? Yeah, but then you really need a lot of teams to lose. The thinking is that you just can't afford to do that. Then tiebreakers (come into play), because you're shooting for the Wild Card now that the division has been won by the Texans. So now you have all those other factors come into play. All you can do is take care of your three games, and we figure we have a great shot if we do that. If not, then obviously it would be very hard to get in."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on the need to address the Titans on the possibility of overlooking the Colts because of the team's record):
"I think when you play in the division it's different. I think an answer coming from us or the Texans or Jacksonville, it's a little different because we know each other so well. So usually you say when you know each other so well, that the records never matter. Who better would you like to ruin their chances at the playoffs than a division team? I think there are a lot of things that are naturally there, even if they had two or three wins, it wouldn't change anything as far as how they're going to play us. I don't think Dwight Freeney is going to slow down because they're 0-13. He had a few sacks last week, and looked pretty darn good. I think when you turn the film on, and that's what I say, look and turn the film on for a couple of days and then they'll know why they (the Titans) have to play hard. They're not going to take anyone for granted with (Robert) Mathis or the defense in general, and how hard they play and how hard they're running. So that's something that our group definitely does not need to hear from me. They know what they're in for, because we haven't won in the new stadium yet. They are no doubt struggling in certain parts to win the game, but within the game they're doing a lot of good things. They've got some players that can make some plays. Their receivers, you've got (Dallas) Clark and (Pierre) Garcon, and (Joseph) Addai. They have a lot of guys that can make plays, so we know we're going to have our hands full. I don't care what their record is, we know that going in. No, I don't need to say much about that, because I like I said, especially for the offensive line, they know what it's all about when you come to Indy with the group that they face. So the game can change real fast if they knock balls out of the quarterbacks hands."
Titans running back Chris Johnson(on underestimating the Colts because of their record):
"It's human nature to know what their record and things like that, but still at the end of the day we have to go out and execute ourselves. I'm not sure if it was the last week or the week before, but they put up a lot of points, and the game wasn't a blow-out. It was a good game. So it just shows you that they may have started off doing really bad, but they've been working all year and they've been playing better. It's a situation where we're not just going to be able to go out there, get off the bus and get the victory. We're going to have to practice hard all week and go in there and play a good game. Last game (against the Colts), I didn't have a real good game against them, so it's a situation where there is a little motivational chip on our shoulder where I want to do better than I did last game."
Titans running back Chris Johnson(on the Titans' playoff hopes):
"It's kind of a situation right now, we feel like, where we're looking at the whole situation as our playoffs have started this week. Basically we've got three division games in the Colts, Houston (Texans) and the (Jacksonville) Jaguars, so it's kind of like win or we're out of the playoffs. Our playoffs have started, so every week is a must-win. If we lose to the Colts, then we might as well get ready to pack our stuff up at the end of the year. In order for us to get to where we want to go, we've got to start our playoffs right now. We've got three games to make it to the playoffs."