INDIANAPOLIS – The outline of the task was clear. How to accomplish the task was not.
Heading into the final four weeks of the 2010 regular season, the Colts controlled their own destiny. If they won their final four games, they once again would win the AFC South and make the playoffs.
Winning one game is daunting enough. Looking a four-game stretch is against the nature of an organization that professes a one-game-at-a-time approach. What the Colts needed to do was win one game, four times in a row.
The Colts were looking at a stretch of contests that included Tennessee twice – once to start the stretch, then one to end it. In between was a home game with Jacksonville and a road date at Oakland.
For starters, Indianapolis had to travel to Nashville on a short week to meet the Titans on Thursday on national television. The Colts were coming off a home overtime loss to Dallas. The setback to the Cowboys was preceded by losses to New England and San Diego. Dropping three straight games to fall to .500 was troubling, and an injury-battered club now faced a tough divisional foe with no wiggle-room to fail.
On a 35-degree Nashville night under the lights of LP Field and the NFL Network, Indianapolis would strike quickly in ending a losing streak and staying alive for another week.
The teams exchanged punts on the first two possessions of the game before the Colts offense started the scoring.
Driving 68 yards in just under six minutes, running back Javarris James capped off an 11-play drive with a one-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal. He tallied after the Tennessee defense had held twice before from the one.
The Colts defense gave the offense great field position on the next drive as defensive end Dwight Freeney caused Titans receiver Kenny Britt to fumble and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler returned the loose ball to the Indianapolis 41-yard line.
Manning, who had endured a tough stretch in the three previous games with interceptions out-numbering touchdowns, guided Indianapolis to another score.
The Colts used 10 plays to double the lead, with the final one being a one-yard Manning pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon. Indianapolis was ahead, 14-0, with 10:17 remaining in the second quarter.
The third touchdown of the first half came off another Titans turnover. Tennessee did not execute a punt near midfield and Taj Smith recovered a fumble at the Titans 19-yard line to put the Colts in business.
Two plays later it was Garcon and Manning again connecting. The 19-yard touchdown pass provided a 21-0 bulge.
The Titans took over with 2:30 left in the first half and running back Chris Johnson scored on a one-yard touchdown run to cut the halftime lead to 21-7. Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins hit two passes on the drive to help get his club on the board before the break.
Getting the ball to start the second half, the Titans drove for a touchdown as Collins and tight end Craig Stevens hooked up for a seven-yard score.
The Colts would answer with an Adam Vinatieri field goal from 21 yards out, pushing the lead to 24-14 with 7:22 remaining in the third quarter. Indianapolis had reached the Tennessee eight-yard line, but could inflict no harsher damage.
After forcing a Tennessee three-and-out, Indianapolis moved methodically from its 27 to the Tennessee nine. Using 16 plays and 7:52 possession time, Vinatieri hit a 28-yard field goal for a 27-14 advantage two minutes into the final quarter.
The Titans would not go away as Collins threw his second touchdown pass of the evening on the next drive. Collins teamed with tight end Bo Scaife to cut the margin to 27-21 midway through the period.
The team traded punts before Garcon provided Indianapolis with the lift it needed. With 3:37 to go, he caught a short slant pass from Manning, immediately shed two defenders and raced 43 yards to the Tennessee 32-yard line. Vinatieri kicked his third field goal, this one from 47 yards seconds later for a 30-21 lead with 2:55 remaining. The Titans scored a touchdown on the game's final play to make the final score of 30-28.
Manning bounced back from a rough three-game stretch by hitting 25-of-35 passes for 319 yards and two scores. Manning's two touchdown passes gave him 13 straight seasons with at least 25 touchdown tosses. He also became the only NFL quarterback with 13-straight 25 -TD and 3,500 -yardage seasons. It was his 63rd career 300 game, tying Dan Marino for the most in NFL history, and it was his 34th on the road to extend his personal league mark.
Without running back Joseph Addai, James and Donald Brown combined for 32 carries. It extended the Colts' record 7-0 on the year when they had at least 22 rushing attempts.
The Colts stayed alive.
After a last-minute 34-24 victory over Jacksonville on December 19 and a 31-26 triumph at Oakland that followed the next Sunday, Indianapolis welcomed Tennessee on January 2 with the chance to earn the desired playoff berth.
The game was moved to late afternoon for the maximum possible television drama. Indianapolis would do its part by earning a last-second victory, though its playoff spot had been clinched when Jacksonville lost earlier in the day.
It was a battle of Vinatieri and Titans kicker Rob Bironas through much of the first half. The kickers each hit a pair of field goals in the first 22 minutes. Vinatieri was good from 48 and 44 yards, while Bironas converted from 26 and 42 yards. His first effort came after an Indianapolis defensive stand from its eight-yard line.
Ending the field goal trend was Manning and the Colts offense with a 78-yard, 10-play drive that ended when wide receiver Reggie Wayne snared a seven-yard touchdown pass with 1:55 left in the first half.
The Colts would take their 13-6 lead into intermission but just like they had done a month earlier, the Titans came out firing in the second half.
Collins threw two third-quarter touchdown passes sandwiched around a Manning-to-Garcon 30-yard strike.
Heading to the final quarter tied at 20, it would be a battle of defenses in the final 15 minutes.
The two units forced eight straight punts, before the Titans made a breakthrough.
Colts running back Dominic Rhodes fumbled in Titans territory with 1:46 remaining and Tennessee safety Michael Griffin returned it to the Colts 37-yard line.
Tennessee failed to convert the takeaway into points when Collins fumbled a snap two plays later and defensive end Robert Mathis recovered with 1:25 left.
That break was all the Colts needed as they marched 37 yards in five plays. Vinatieri kicked his third field goal, this one from 43 yards out at the gun.
The Colts had won the 2010 AFC South title and had earned their ninth straight playoff berth, tying Dallas for the longest NFL streak.
Manning was 27-of-41 passing for 264 yards and two scores. Wayne had nine receptions for 68 yards, while Garcon had seven for 78 yards. Manning set the NFL record with his 208th consecutive start to begin a career. He became the first quarterback with three 4,500 -yardage seasons, and he set the league seasonal record with 450 completions. Wayne's scoring reception was his 69th, moving past Raymond Berry into second-place in Colts career touchdown receptions (128, Marvin Harrison). Vinatieri became the seventh NFL player with 500 career points with multiple teams. Jim Caldwell joined Don McCafferty (1970-71), Ted Marchibroda (1975-76) and Tony Dungy (2002-03) as the only Colts coaches to earn double-digit victory totals and playoff berths in the first two years with the club.