INDIANAPOLIS — Seventeen days ago, the Indianapolis Colts went into Nashville and took it to the Tennessee Titans, turning in a dominant second-half effort in all three phases and flying home with a 17-point divisional win.
The Titans certainly returned the favor in Sunday's rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What started as an absolute slugfest by the two teams quickly turned into a lopsided affair, as Tennessee had all the answers on offense, defense and special teams, handing the Colts a 45-26 home loss and taking control of the AFC South Division race with five games to go.
"Obviously, tough loss," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "(We) came in here feeling confident, feeling prepared and was just a very poor effort — got outplayed, got outcoached, really in all three phases, so not good enough."
See all the action on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts host the Tennessee Titans in Week 12.
Sunday's game had all the makings of a shootout early on.
The Titans got the ball first and promptly went 75 yards in 10 plays, reaching the end zone with a 12-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry. The Colts responded right back with an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Philip Rivers to tight end Trey Burton, capping a 12-play, 75-yard opening drive.
Tennessee needed just four plays to get into the end zone on its second drive, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill found his top receiver, A.J. Brown, for a 69-yard catch-and-run touchdown play. But Indy answered right back with a six-play drive of its own, as backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, continuing his recent role as a short-yardage specialist, was able to punch it in from one yard out to tie the game at 14 with 12:51 remaining in the second quarter.
But that's when the Titans flipped the proverbial switch.
By halftime, thanks to a dominant rushing attack by Henry and the Tennessee offensive line — and some equally sloppy play by the Indy defense — matched with the Colts' sudden inability to move the ball on their end, the Titans had built a 21-point lead, 35-14.
Henry alone went into halftime with 17 rushing attempts for 140 yards and two touchdowns, as he was nearly averaging a first down with every carry. The Colts, meanwhile, struggled to move the chains on their end, as they converted just 1-of-5 third-down opportunities over the first two quarters.
"I literally felt like we came in at (the) half and played about as bad a half as we could play," Reich said.
The Colts were able to stop the bleeding on defense for the most part over the final two quarters — the Titans had just 103 yards of total offense and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in the second half — but the issues on offense, coupled with an uncharacteristic special teams gaffe, would seal the deal.
Rivers completed 13-of-25 passing attempts for 167 yards with a touchdown and an interception each in the third and fourth quarters, but just couldn't get into a consistent rhythm with his receivers down the field, either due to some off-target throws or simple drops out in space.
The nail in the coffin came with less than three minutes remaining in the ballgame.
Rivers connected with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton for a five-yard touchdown pass with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter, but the Colts, having cut the Titans' lead to 12, 38-26, were unable to get the two-point conversion.
Indy then lined up for an onside kick to try to capture some sort of late magic to get back into the ballgame. Rigoberto Sanchez's attempt was fielded on a dead sprint by Brown, however, who ran 42 yards untouched into the end zone to produce the final score of the ballgame.
The Colts' offense had 336 yards of total offense on the day. Rivers, in all, completed 24-of-42 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns to one interception for a QB rating of 84.9; running back Nyheim Hines had 95 total yards, with 29 on the ground and eight receptions for 66 yards through the air, while Hilton had his best performance of the season so far, with four receptions for 81 yards and that aforementioned late touchdown. Brissett added two rushing touchdowns.
The Colts also saw left tackle Anthony Castonzo exit Sunday's game early with a knee injury. Reich said his initial belief is it won't be a "worst-case scenario" type of prognosis, but the team will await further results before determining the 10th-year veteran's possible timetable for return.
The Indy defense — which was without three key starters on Sunday in defensive end/tackle Denico Autry and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (Reserve/COVID-19 list) and linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle) — was led by linebacker Darius Leonard, who had a game-best 14 tackles; Leonard also added a sack and a pass defensed.
Safety Khari Willis, who also exited Sunday's game with back and quad injuries, finished with five tackles, a pass defensed and a quarterback hit. Tyquan Lewis, who got the start in place of Autry, also had five tackles (one for a loss) and a pass defensed.
Henry, the NFL's leading rusher, finished with 27 total rushing attempts for 178 yards (6.6 avg.) and three touchdowns. Tannehill completed 13-of-22 passes for 221 yards with a touchdown, while Brown finished with four receptions for 98 yards and a score.
Sunday's game had major implications on the AFC South divisional race — and the Colts' playoff hopes in general.
According to fivethirtyeight.com, Indianapolis entered the day with a 77-percent chance of earning a spot in the postseason and a 56-percent shot at winning the division. The Colts' loss dropped their overall playoff chances to 55 percent, and their chances of taking home the AFC South title now to 14 percent.
Anything can happen over these next five games — starting with next Sunday's road matchup against the Houston Texans (4-7) — but the margin for error is certainly shrinking.
"As big as this one was, it's one game," Rivers said. "It's just like we talked about a few weeks ago: it's a week-to-week league. A huge win against Tennessee on the road. Huge win against the Packers and now here we sit. Now what are we?"