Colts Travel to Nashville, Tenn., For Prime-Time Game with High Stakes
INDIANAPOLIS – As Gary Brackett sees it, the stakes are as obvious as they are high.
Brackett, the Colts' middle linebacker and defensive captain, said while four weeks remain in the regular season, calling those games "regular-season" games may be inaccurate.
The Colts are 6-6 and in second place in the AFC South.
And while that status leaves them very much in contention for the division title and the accompanying post-season appearance, it leaves them little margin for error.
The Colts, Brackett said, need to win – a lot.
And it needs to start now.
"This is definitely a must-win game – the rest of the four," Brackett said as the Colts prepared to play the Tennessee Titans (5-7) at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday at 8:20 p.m.
"Our playoff season starts a little early this year. We're definitely of the mindset where we definitely have to win this game."
The Colts, who have won six of the past seven AFC South titles, enter the fourth quarter of the season one game behind first-place Jacksonville (7-5). The Jaguars beat Tennessee, 17-6, Sunday.
The Colts and Jaguars play in Indianapolis December 19, and each team controls its post-season destiny.
If the Colts win all of their remaining games, they will win the South. Under that scenario, if Jacksonville wins all of its games except its game against the Colts, the teams would finish tied at 10-6. Also under the scenario, Indianapolis would win the division based on a better record against common opponents.
The Houston Texans and Titans, each at 5-7, are also still in post-season contention.
"It's been a pretty competitive division all year," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's been tight. Everybody has kind of been beating everybody.
"Usually at 6-6 you probably wouldn't have a chance at anything, but somehow, some way, we do. We hope to take advantage of that opunity. I know all we're talking about around here is trying to get a win, just winning each week and seeing what happens after that.
"That's all we can control is this game Thursday, and hopefully we can get things going back in our direction."
The Colts have games remaining at Tennessee and Oakland (December 26), as well as games at home against the Jaguars and Tennessee (January 2).
"That's the thing: We win out these last four games, we still have a home playoff game," Brackett said. "If that's not an incentive to turn things around and start playing some good ball, I don't know what is.
"We just have to clean that up and try to get things done."
The game will be played with each team having just three days rest. The Colts lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 38-35, in overtime this past Sunday.
"I think it is a good thing," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think that there are some benefits. I know physically it puts us through a real test that we have to certainly have a quick turnaround. From a mental approach, oftentimes it is better to get back out on the practice field a little sooner and have an opportunity to play a game a little more quickly. I think there are some pluses and minuses to it."
And while the Colts have lost four of five games, including each of the last three, Manning said, "We're still right in the middle of it.
"The season is still very much wide open you could say," Manning said. "I would be hard-pressed to take these last three losses and make that define a season. It's been three games where we haven't won, and we've had chances to win two of them down at the end.
"If you want to call it a bad three-game stretch, whatever it may be, it would be hard to say that's the entire season. In the four games left, we don't know what can happen. We certainly hope to get hot, and I certainly hope to start playing better at quarterback. What we need right now is a win.
"A win always solves some problems and gets some momentum. I know the Titans are in the same boat. That's why it's going to be so tough, but that's sure what we are trying to do."
Manning said familiarity of a division rivalry – and the teams often being post-season contenders – is just part of what has made Titans-Colts a prominent AFC South rivalry.
Jeff Fisher is the NFL's most-tenured coach, having held the Titans' head position since 1995, and Manning said the Colts essentially have run the same systems since Tony Dungy's arrival as head coach in 2002. That also was the year the teams began playing as members of the AFC South.
"It's been a great rivalry," Manning said. "It's always been a good game, especially in Nashville. There is a lot of familiarity between the systems and the coaches. Coach Fisher has been in the NFL for a long time. I think he and (Philadelphia Head Coach) Andy Reid are the only coaches that have been there the entire time I've been playing. Our system has basically been the same since 2002. A lot of familiarity between the systems, the teams have had some turnover as of late, but it's a competitive rivalry."
Since the 2002 inception of the South, the Colts hold an 11-5 edge in the series, with the Titans sweeping the Colts in 2002, and the Colts sweeping the series in 2003-05 and last season.
The Colts have won six of eight AFC South titles, winning the division from 2003-07 and again last season. The Titans won the division in 2002 and 2008.
"It's been a tough battle," Brackett said. "The last couple of years, it's been, 'We win one; they win one.' Those guys know us. We know them. It's going to be a tough game, a nasty game – probably a little pushing and shoving – so that's the way it is.
"It's one of those divisional battles that's probably going to be a 60-minute ballgame. . . . Despite the records, we both still have an opportunity to get to the playoffs.
"We're both going to be out there playing tough football."