NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Like the 17-6 halftime lead they squandered to the visiting Colts here Thursday night in a 30-27 loss, the Titans continue to witness a season that once held promise slide hopelessly away.
Five losses in the last six games, including the devastating loss to the Colts (7-3) in front of another sellout crowd of 69,143 at LP Field, have the Titans (4-6) barely breathing on playoff life support as they head into a trio of road games at Oakland, Indianapolis and Denver.
The Colts, meanwhile, not only rebounded from the inexplicable 38-8 home loss to St. Louis last Sunday, but scored 17 unanswered points on the floundering Titans to open the second half and turn the tide Thursday night. They now lead the AFC South by three games over the Titans with six to play.
“We have six more games to play,” said Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose team lost to previously winless Jacksonville on Sunday or it would have been playing the Colts for first place in the division Thursday night.
“We can win them all and be in a solid position,” Munchak added. “But we have to play better. We have put ourselves right there. We have to play 60 minutes. We have to quit making mistakes that hurt us.”
Subbing for injured quarterback Jake Locker, who was lost for the season Sunday with a foot injury, Titans backup Ryan Fitzpatrick guided the Titans on touchdown scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions. And they even took a 17-3 lead with 2:32 to play before halftime on a 30-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.
But the Colts took over the game in the second half, scoring 17 unanswered points in the third quarter and answering every Titans rally after that with points of their own.
“I thought we came out and got points on the board early,” Munchak said. “It looked like we were going to do some good things.”
In his backup role, Fitzpatrick played well enough to lead the Titans to a win. He completed 22-of-28 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 111.6 rating. But the offense sputtered in the second half as the Colts raced to a 30-20 edge with 3:01 to play before settling into the final three-point margin of victory.
“The last two games have been very tough for us,” said Fitzpatrick, the nine-year veteran who started all 32 games the last two seasons for the Bills. He played well in relief of Locker on Sunday, but couldn’t rally the team to the win over the Jaguars then, either.
“These were games that we thought we should have won, but we didn’t,” he said. “We didn’t close out either of them. We have to find that formula, whatever it is. We have to try to find a way to pull these games out in the end.
“It’s a tough locker room in there right now because that’s two in a row that kind of slipped away from us.”
Trailing 17-6 at halftime, the Colts methodically marched the opening possession of the second half 74 yards on 11 plays for a momentum-gathering scoring drive. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck chipped away at the Titans’ defense by completing all six of his passes, but none went longer than 16 yards. Running back Donald Brown capped the drive with a 6-yard scamper around the left side to pull the Colts within 17-14.
And soon after Titans returner Devon Wylie fumbled the ball away on the ensuing kickoff return after running into teammate Craig Stevens, the Colts took the lead 20-17 two plays later when Luck faked a pass and tucked the ball and ran 11 yards for a touchdown. Wylie had been signed earlier in the week to return punts and kicks after Damian Williams, a Titans receiver thrown into return duty after Darius Reynaud was cut, was sidelined by injury from the previous game.
“Yeah, for whatever reason, we just can’t hold on to the football,” Munchak said of the costly fumble by Wylie and four fumbles in the previous loss to the Jaguars. ” … When you’re playing games like this — three-point games, two-point games — you can’t give away points.”
The Colts extended the lead to 23-17 late in the third quarter on a third field goal from Adam Vinatieri, this one from 50 yards. But the Titans answered with a field goal of their own — a 38-yarder by Bironas — to pull the within 23-20 with 11:39 to play.
But the Colts put the game on ice on an 11-yard run by running back Donald Brown. It capped an 11-play, 74-yard drive that ate nearly 5 minutes off the clock and didn’t allow the Titans to touch the ball again until they were trailing by two scores with 3:01 remaining.
“They did exactly what they wanted to do,” Munchak said of the Colts’ late time-consuming drive that resulted in a touchdown. “We didn’t stop them. They ran the ball much better than they should have been able to.”
The Titans did answer with one final gasp, though, driving 80 yards in only four plays to pull within the final margin with 1:54 remaining. A 42-yard completion from Fitzpatrick to receiver Nate Washington preceded a 19-yard scoring strike to Walker.
But like they had done in the previous home game — a 29-27 home loss to previously winless Jacksonville — the Titans couldn’t recover an on-side kick.
Luck completed 23-of-36 passes for 232 yards and an 82.2 rating. His favorite target was second-year Coby Fleener, Luck’s collegiate teammate at Stanford, who had a game-high 107 yards on 10 catches. Brown had 80 yards on 14 carries, including the game-winning touchdown.
“When you get down, we don’t get down,” Fleener said of the team rallying for the win. “We’ve been there so many times. Obviously, we were frustrated, but everybody is back on the sidelines, in each other’s ears and making the corrections.”
Titans running back Chris Johnson had 86 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns. Titans tight end Delanie Walker had 10 catches for 91 yards and one score, while receiver Kendall Wright finished with 80 yards on nine receptions.
The Titans had talked about the necessity to get off to a fast start, and they did just that by marching the opening drive 80 yards on eight plays, capping it with a 30-yard scoring jaunt off right tackle Johnson. Fitzpatrick completed 4-of-5 passes on the drive — two each to Walker and Wright — to account for 50 yards of the drive.
After holding the Colts on downs without a first down, the Titans grew the lead to 14-0 on their next possession, moving the ball 68 yards on 11 plays. This time, though, it was Johnson carrying most of the load, gaining 39 of the yards on six carries, including the final seven yards up the middle for the touchdown.
The Colts finally slowed the Titans’ offensive surge by churning 13 plays from their own 5-yard line to the Titans’ 33 before settling on a 48-yard field goal by Vinatieri to pull within 14-3 early in the second quarter.
The Titans took a 17-3 lead into halftime on a 30-yard field goal by Bironas, but not before the Colts assisted the Tennessee drive with three-straight personal foul penalties that took the Titans from their own 41-yard line all the way to the Indy 13.
Colts linebacker Robert Mathis gave the Titans a first down with a hit to the head of Fitzpatrick following an incomplete third-down pass, cornerback Cassius Vaughn body-slammed Titans receiver Justin Hunter at the end of a play, and linebacker Erik Walden tore the helmet off Walker and flung it down field.
The Colts closed the first half on a 30-yard field goal by Vinatieri to pull within 17-6 at intermission.
“Up to this point, we done enough talking,” Johnson said of the Titans’ approach the remainder of the season. “Talking is just getting old. We got to go out there and make plays for 60 minutes and stop turning these close wins and saying, ‘We could’ve won this one and could’ve won that one.’
“We’ve got to out there and win if we are going to make the playoffs.”