INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts and Tennessee Titans meet Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium to conclude the season series between the teams.
The contest will be the first of three straight divisional encounters for Indianapolis and Tennessee as the clubs close the regular season.
The Colts host Houston on December 22, then they travel to Jacksonville for a January 1 meeting with the Jaguars. Tennessee meets those teams in the reverse order on consecutive Sundays to end the regular season schedule.
Unlike past seasons, Sunday's final meeting against the Titans will hold no post-season implications for Indianapolis. That was not the case in last year's second series meeting.
In last year's season finale, Indianapolis earned a 23-20 victory at the gun when kicker Adam Vinatieri hit a 43-yard field goal. It was the last win in a four-game streak that earned the Colts the AFC South crown.
Tennessee enters Sunday's game still looking for post-season inclusion. The Titans are trying to keep pace in the AFC Wild Card hunt. Tennessee is 1-2 in AFC South action this year, beating the Colts, while losing to Jacksonville and Houston.
Until 2011, Indianapolis and Tennessee were the only teams to win the divisional crown since the 2002 Realignment. The AFC South stood as the lone division where only two teams had won division titles. Houston now joins Indianapolis and Tennessee with division crowns.
The Colts and Titans battled neck-and-neck in the first year of divisional existence. Tennessee was able to beat the Colts twice to win the crown by one game.
The roles were reversed the next year as Indianapolis won at home early in the season against Tennessee, then prevailed in Nashville by two points when both teams had 9-3 records. It took a week 17 comeback at Houston for Indianapolis to win the division. In posting a 20-17 victory after a 17-3 fourth-quarter deficit, Indianapolis took the AFC South, though Tennessee matched the Colts' 12-4 record.
Indianapolis also was able to win the division from 2004 through 2007 and from 2009 through 2010. The Titans zipped to a 10-0 start in 2008, and Indianapolis took a 23-0 home win in the finale to reach the playoffs, too.
These teams met in LP Field on October 30, with Tennessee winning, 27-10. The Titans bolted to a 20-0 lead in earning the win. Quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Curtis Painter led their teams that day. Since then, Indianapolis turned to Dan Orlovsky to go under center. Hasselbeck did not finish last week's game because of injury, and Jake Locker shared playing time against New Orleans.
The importance of the next three games for Indianapolis carries the same weight it always has simply for one fact. Indianapolis historically points to AFC South games as the most important ones on the schedule. It has been an ingrained mindset that is an inherent part of the club's culture. It is the first thing mentioned every spring by Head Coach Jim Caldwell to his troops. Caldwell did not even need to mention the topic this week.
"It's goal number one in the grand scheme of things because it's (winning the division) the only way you're assured of getting into the playoffs," said Caldwell. "We make that a big point of emphasis early on. Simply because we're not playing for a berth in the playoffs this time, it doesn't make this game any less important.
"They (division games) certainly do carry a little extra edge. There's always something at stake when you're playing in the division, because they are guys we play twice a year. There is a competitive desire there among both teams to win. They are very important to us."
Safety Antoine Bethea knows the value of competing successfully in the AFC South. Bethea has had a hand in Indianapolis building a 42-15 divisional mark since 2002. The team's divisional record is 12 games better than its nearest foe, Tennessee. His answer could serve as a team mantra.
"For us, that's the first way to get into the playoffs. You win the division, you're going to the playoffs," said Bethea. "That means a lot. We play those teams twice a year. You get to know the players on the other teams. Each game really is like a rivalry. You want to win those games and sort of get the bragging rights going into the next year. Regardless of the records, you want to win those games. Every team in the division has a healthy respect for the other (AFC South) teams. We go in every game knowing it will be a hard-fought battle. Our last three games are division games, we want to end on a good note."
Cornerback Jerraud Powers has been playing since 2009 and even though he is out today, he is well-versed in divisional matters and the quality of Sunday's opponent.
"Whenever you're playing in your division it's important, it's like playing a rival," said Powers. "You're familiar with each other. You know what you're going to get, and they know they're going to get it from you. Those are games you want to win. You always want to be that team that sort of takes control of the division. That's the type of attitude you should have, no matter what division you're in. You have to take division games to heart for what they mean. These (last three games) are games you want to win. We're trying to change the momentum around here. We're trying to get some wins under our belt before this thing is over. Playing our division would be a good way to do it. You're playing a team you're familiar with, and that's usually when you play your best.
"Tennessee is tough. They have a good offense and defense. They're a feisty group of guys who play every play like it's their last one. It's sort of a healthy hate, sort of a, 'They don't like us, we don't like them,' type of thing, even though we respect them a lot and I'm sure they respect us. It's always been a good rivalry, and it's always been a tough game."
Vinatieri is one the toughest players in league history when it comes to clutch situations. He has decided many battles, and he has witnessed divisional rivalries in both the AFC South and the AFC East. While he has played in five Super Bowls, he notices the added atmosphere in a divisional game.
"For sure. Whenever you play in the division, there's more of a competitive rivalry there," said Vinatieri. "There's a better understanding of each other because you play each other twice a year. It's kind of bragging rights. Unfortunately for us there are no playoff implications, but we want to go out there and play well. We still want to show the division we still have what it takes. Winning is winning. You want to get them whenever you can. There's a ton of meanings in different wins at different times. Right now, it's just about winning a game.
"Tennessee is a very good team. They're playing well. They are in a race for the playoffs, so you know they will come in here, play hard and play well. They're going to try to get a win. We're going to try to keep them from doing that."
Long snapper Justin Snow is like Bethea in that his first words depict the importance Indianapolis places on performances in six key games a season. Those certain dates carry significance.
"Our first goal every year is to win our division, to do that you have to beat the division opponents," said Snow. "You play them twice, so you can always get a leg up. Now that we are out of it (playoff hunt), you want to play well against your division. They know you and you know them just as well. It's a pride thing, and we want to finish the season strongly. You absolutely do not (want a division team thinking it can beat you). (The games) always mean something a little extra."
Caldwell's first season with Indianapolis was the inaugural season for the division. He always has been struck by the nature of the contests with Tennessee.
"Tennessee is a hard-nosed team," said Caldwell. "They do a great job in all phases. Any time our teams play against one another, you can anticipate a hard-hitting contest that's competitive. Certainly no one wants to end up on the short end of the ledger in that particular game."