INDIANAPOLIS – In 2002, the first year of the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts finished with a 10-6 record. The Colts owned a 5-3 divisional mark, but two losses came against Tennessee. The Titans won the division that year with at 12-4, and Indianapolis was relegated to a Wild Card Playoff status.
Dropping 23-15 and 27-17 decisions to Tennessee came after Indianapolis had fallen in the Divisional Playoffs to the Titans after the 1999 season. That was a 19-16 verdict in the RCA Dome and though Tennessee had not dominated any of the games, it had swept the Colts three times in a row.
Tony Dungy was not the head coach of the Colts for that playoff defeat, but he was in his second year as the field leader of Indianapolis. One of his stated goals to the team was the necessity to target divisional games as crucial because winning a division was the only guaranteed way to have a playoff berth.
The first chance to enact that edict from the head coach came in week two of 2003 with the Colts hosting the Titans. Tennessee had used the division title from a year ago to reach the AFC Championship game. Now, the 1-0 Titans were facing the 1-0 Colts.
Indianapolis had pulled out a last-second victory the previous week at Cleveland, 9-6, a game where the Colts failed to score a touchdown. Tennessee came to the RCA Dome owning a 25-20 victory over Oakland, the team that had beaten the Titans for the previous season's conference championship.
Against the Titans, the offense and kicker Mike Vanderjagt left no doubt in how the game would be decided.
With the Titans leading, 7-3, midway through the second quarter, the Colts took control from there.
Kick returner Brad Pyatt followed a Titans touchdown with a 38-yard kick returning, giving the Colts great field position at their own 43-yard line. Quarterback Peyton Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark for a 42-yard gain on the first play of scrimmage and the rest of the drive would come on the ground.
Running back Edgerrin James punched the ball in from the two-yard line for the Colts' first touchdown of the season. James was on the way to a 120-yard, 30-carry outing.
On the next Colts possession, Manning found wide receiver Marvin Harrison for a 35-yard touchdown strike, giving the home team a 17-7 lead at halftime. The Indianapolis defense limited running back Eddie George, who entered the game with 113 consecutive starts – a league-leading total for active players – to 41 yards on 13 first-half attempts.
The second half was all about defense and special teams for the Colts as Indianapolis had the ball for almost two-thirds (19:21) of the game's final 30 minutes.
Vanderjagt would hit three more field goals and cornerback Nick Harper finished off the game with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining to make the final score 33-7 in the Colts favor.
The Colts defense recorded five sacks to go along with two takeaways and shut the Titans out on 11 of their 12 offensive possessions. Rookie defensive end Robert Mathis had a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. Tennessee had 99 net yards and six first downs in the second half.
Manning threw for only 173 yards, hitting 14-of-21 passes. Indianapolis trailed for only 2:33 of the contest in producing its first key triumph in the series in years.
Both teams progressed through the season successfully and tracked each other closely. The division settled into a two-team race, and the combatants met again in Nashville on December 7. On a sunny, 42-degree afternoon the two 9-3 teams waged a spirited battle at The Coliseum. The team that emerged victorious likely would have the inside track on the divisional race over the final three games.
Indianapolis was on the way to a 447-point season, and Vanderjagt was toiling through a year where he would connect on all 37 field goal attempts. The Pro Bowl kicker accounted for all 12 of the Colts' first-half points as Indianapolis took a 12-10 halftime lead over the Titans. His final kick from 23 yards out came with two seconds left in the half to give Indianapolis its first lead of the game.
The tight score added to the drama of the afternoon. Manning was 13-of-24 passing for 140 yards in leading the club to 208 net yards in the half. Steve McNair was six-of-10 passing and tallied on a two-yard rush to give Tennessee a 10-3 advantage late in the opening period. The two quarterbacks later would share Associated Press Most Valuable Player honors after the season.
Running back Dominic Rhodes sparked the start to the second half when he returned the opening kickoff 44 yards to the Colts 46-yard line.
Nine plays and 54 yards later, James scored on third-and-one from the two-yard line giving the Colts a 19-10 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Colts forced and recovered one of four fumbles on the afternoon. Mathis forced the fumble from Eddie Berlin, and Ricky Williams recovered for the Colts at Tennessee's 15-yard line. Indianapolis gained only four yards and Vanderjagt added a 26-yard field goal for a 22-10 advantage midway through the period.
Titans kicker Gary Anderson responded with a 40-yard field goal with 2:40 left in the third quarter, but the Colts offense struck quickly with a four-play, 68-yard touchdown drive. Manning hit Harrison for 16 and 42 yards on consecutive plays to start the drive. The second completion featured Harrison's iconic one-handed, levitating grab, one that stood out over his 1,102-reception career. James finished the drive by rushing twice for five yards as the Colts took a 29-13 lead into the fourth quarter.
Down by 16 points to start the final quarter, the Titans fought on. McNair capped a 12-play, 69-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown pass, and then he converted the two-point conversion with a keeper to bring the Titans within 29-21 with 9:24 to go.
After a pair of Colts drives would lead to Hunter Smith punts, McNair would get one final shot with 2:40 remaining and 52 yards to go. He teamed with wide receiver Justin McCareins twice to reach the Colts' one-yard line, the second one coming on a third-and-10 play from the Indianapolis 19. On third-and-two from the Colts' two, McNair hit wide receiver Derrick Mason for the score, with a replay challenge upholding the ruling. The score was 29-27 with 1:52 remaining and the divisional title all-but hanging in the balance. Defensive end Dwight Freeney made the play for Indianapolis in the late-afternoon Nashville shadows. McNair dropped to target Mason for the tying conversion, but Freeney batted the pass down.
Tennessee forced a Colts punt by using two timeouts. McCareins fielded Hunter Smith's punt at the Tennessee 29-yard line, but Cliff Crosby forced a fumble at the Titans' 40. Anthony Floyd recovered and Indianapolis ran one play to snuff out the clock.
The game marked the 93rd consecutive start for Manning, breaking the franchise record held by John Unitas for quarterbacks. Harrison's 10-catch, 124-yard performance marked the 42nd time he had gone over 100 yards receiving in game and pushed him past the 10,000-yard mark for his career.
Indianapolis would defeat Atlanta the following week, 38-7, but the club lost at home to Denver the next week, 31-17. Tennessee won twice to keep pressure on the Colts and the teams went into the last Sunday of the season knotted with records of 11-4. Tennessee beat Tampa Bay early in the day, and Indianapolis would need late heroics at Houston to clinch the crown. Down 17-3 to start the final period, Indianapolis scored on a James rush and a Manning touchdown pass, the latter coming with 3:50 left in the game. Indianapolis got possession again with 2:40 to go, and Manning zipped the club 65 yards for the division-winning score, a 43-yard Vanderjagt field goal at the gun.