Through four weeks, the Tennessee Titans were tied for the fewest points in the NFL. Since then, coach Mike Mularkey’s vision of "exotic smashmouth" has played out before everyone’s eyes.
Last week’s 47-25 clobbering of the Green Bay Packers marked the most points for Tennessee in a single game since 2009 and also capped a six-week stretch in which it has averaged 34 points per contest. What’s more, the Titans have scored at least 35 points in each of the last three games.
"We’re making less mistakes," Mularkey said. "We’ve been very good in the red zone and I think the biggest thing we’ve done is our third down. We’ve been very good on third down, which has allowed us to put some of these drives together.
"We feel like we’re very hard to defend based on all the things we do and when it comes time to put points up, we’re putting points up."
Tennessee (5-5) will try to keep lighting up the scoreboard at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday, when it will play the Colts in a key AFC South matchup. The winner will at least temporarily gain ground on first place Houston (6-3), which plays the Monday night game against Oakland in Mexico City.
Indianapolis (4-5) had last week off after dumping Green Bay 31-26 two weeks ago at Lambeau Field, leading wire-to-wire in probably its best performance of the year. The Colts’ second-best outing this year might have been the first time they played the Titans.
With three offensive starters sidelined, Indianapolis established a 17-6 second-quarter advantage, saw Tennessee rally to take a fourth-quarter lead and then scored two touchdowns in an eight-second span inside the last two minutes for a 34-26 win.
It was the 10th consecutive victory for the Colts over the Titans, dating to the 2011 season. And with everyone healthy after the bye week, Indianapolis is in theory fortified to keep its string of dominance going against its division rival.
"It still comes down to making plays against a good defense," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said.
Despite absorbing 33 sacks and being under siege at times behind a leaky offensive line, Luck is enjoying one of his best seasons, averaging 285 yards per game passing with a 17-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Luck dominated the Tennessee back seven last month, piling up 353 yards on 27-of-39 passing. Tight end Jack Doyle and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton took turns whipping defensive backs and linebackers in coverage, combining for 16 grabs and 211 yards. Doyle had the go-ahead touchdown catch on the first play after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.
It was one of the few games this year in which Luck hasn’t been continually hassled by the opponents’ pass rush. The Titans sacked him only twice and on most plays, Luck could have counted to "four Mississippi, five Mississippi" before throwing.
That was in stark contrast to last week, when Tennessee didn’t have to worry about the threat of a run after roaring out to leads of 21-0 and 35-10 in the first half against Green Bay. It sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and hit him six others.
"Coach Mularkey has that team playing at a high, high level," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. "Just like we do, Tennessee knows the best way to get into the tournament is to win your division. It comes down to being efficient and executing in all three phases."
There was concern prior to last week’s game that a turf toe was slowing down Titans running back DeMarco Murray, but he showed on the first carry that wasn’t the case. His 75-yard touchdown run set the stage for another big game as he rushed for 123 yards on 17 carries while adding the first touchdown pass of his career on a 10-yard halfback option toss to Delanie Walker.
Making Tennessee’s offensive showing even better was that it occurred despite the ejection of left tackle Taylor Lewan less than five minutes into the game. Lewan was tossed for contacting an official during a scuffle after Green Bay’s Letroy Guion drilled quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Mariota went on to throw for 295 yards and four touchdowns, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
A similar performance Sunday could enhance the Titans’ chances at their first division title in eight years.