Every Reason to Be Ready for Monday's Game Against Tennessee, Colts Say
INDIANAPOLIS – Antoine Bethea sees no excuse.
As the Colts' third-year Pro Bowl safety sees it, the circumstances around the game Monday night are special enough that a lot of talk and explanation isn't necessary.
The opponents are the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans are unbeaten this season.
They also lead the Colts by three games in the AFC South.
Throw in the fact that the game is on national television – ESPN's Monday Night Football – and is the only NFL game being played that night, and Bethea said it's a game that's easy to get excited about. Unequivocally easy, in fact.
"If you can't get up for this game, something's wrong," Bethea said.
And in that vein, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said he expects nothing to be wrong for the Colts Monday.
"I think we'll know if we don't win this game, we really won't have a chance to win the division," Dungy said as the Colts (3-3), the five-time defending AFC South champions, prepared to play the Titans (6-0) at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., Monday at 8:30 p.m.
"We should have ourselves ready to play our best game of the year. That's for sure."
With those words this past Monday, Dungy helped set a tone for a game Colts players this week said was critical – if not for their goal of a playoff appearance, certainly for their goal of a sixth consecutive division championship.
"I don't know if it's a must-win, but it will put us in a definite hole if we don't win it," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "It will put winning the division almost out of reach. They're so far ahead of us right now."
Such words have been foreign to the Colts in recent seasons. They not only have made the playoffs each of the last six seasons, they have led the South from start to finish in four of the last five seasons. The only season in which they have not started at least 5-0 and led wire-to-wire was 2004, when they won eight consecutive games after a 4-3 start to win the South by three games.
How dominant have the Colts been?
The Titans, the only other team to win the South in its seven-year existence, did so in 2002. They weren't alone in first place again until Week 1 of this season.
The Colts, after leading or sharing the South lead in 95 of a possible 102 weeks from 2002-2007, lost their season opener this year for the first time since 2004. Two weeks later, they lost to division rival Jacksonville on a 51-yard field goal with :04 remaining to slip to 1-2 for the first time in a decade.
After a Week 4 bye week, the Colts rallied from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win in Houston, then beat Baltimore, 31-3, but this past Sunday lost to the Green Bay Packers, 34-14, leaving them .500 in October for the first time since 2002, Dungy's first season.
The Titans, meanwhile, dominated the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, 34-10, moving to 6-0 for the first time in franchise history.
"They're a division rival," Bethea said. "They're 6-0. We really need this game to keep our division title hopes up. They're up on us right now, and if we lose this game, it's going to be real tough for us to try to win the division.
"Right now, there's a sense of urgency for us. We have to go up and play real well and try to get win."
A Colts victory would pull them to within two games of first place with Tennessee still needing to come to Indianapolis for the season finale. A Titans victory would move them four games ahead of Indianapolis with nine remaining, and would leave Tennessee at 4-0 in the division, with the Colts at 1-2.
"It's a chance for us to take a step forward and take over the division,'' Titans center Kevin Mawae told the Associated Press this week.
"It'd put us sitting pretty," linebacker Keith Bulluck told the AP.
Jeff Fisher, in his 15th season as the coach of the Titans, said such talk is a touch premature.
"We're just fortunate that we've gotten off to a good start and have an opunity to play them,'' Fisher told the AP. "This is just the next game on our schedule. And we're going to do everything we can to play the best we can, and we'll just see what happens."
Dungy said Fisher is likely telling his team the importance of the game with a different emphasis – and in a bit more detail.
"We've been in this situation before with the shoe on the other foot (in past seasons) where we played Tennessee or Jacksonville with a two- or three-game lead and saying, `Hey, we can slam the door on them,''' Dungy said. "I'm sure that's what Jeff (Fisher) is saying to his team. They have a chance to slam the door on us, and that's the way we're looking at it.
"The season won't be over if we don't get a win, and obviously wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl two out of the last three years. It's certainly not a season-ending game. In terms of winning the division, I think that's the reality of it.''
Said Saturday, "It's going to be a great game. We're excited – Monday night, everybody will be watching. It's going to definitely be a big game for us. It's in our division. We always play each other well. It should be fun. It's definitely a must-win game this week if we want to win our division.
"If they beat us, we go further behind. We definitely don't want to do that."
That scenario would push the Colts further into an unfamiliar situation. Until this season, the Colts never had been more than a game behind in the South, and of the 40 veterans on the roster, 34 have been with the Colts their entire careers.
Twenty-five players never have been on a team that didn't win the division.
Still, recent seasons haven't been without adversity. In 2002, the Colts started 4-4, then won six of their last eight games en route to a wild-card appearance. In 2004, they were 4-3 in October before winning eight consecutive games en route to the South title. And in 2006, they lost four of six games in November and December before winning Super Bowl XLI.
"It's a tough situation," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said. "You don't want to be behind, but I'm never going to count us out. Despite whatever we face, or whatever the score is, until mathematically we're out of it, I guess it's the 'Fat Lady Sings . . .' or however the phrase goes.
"For us, we just have to go out there and relax. Obviously, it's a big game, big magnitude, but we just have to relax and play football."