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December 1, 2013

Colts face turning point against Titans

INDIANAPOLIS — There was a sense of foreboding around the Indianapolis Colts this week. Not unlike the moments leading up to the climax of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The importance of today’s rematch against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium is impossible to ignore. A win all but seals the AFC South championship for the Colts (7-4), leaving the team needing just one more win — or one Titans’ loss — in the final four games of the season to lock up its first division title since 2010.

A loss keeps Tennessee (5-6) alive and well in the postseason chase and will surely add to the drama surrounding a team that seemed to have emerged as a true Super Bowl contender just more than a month ago.

On Oct. 20, the Colts were 5-2 and coming off a 39-33 decision against the Denver Broncos. But wide receiver Reggie Wayne became the fifth significant offensive contributor to be lost for the season during the fourth quarter, and coincidentally or not Indianapolis hasn’t been the same since.

The Colts have split their past four contests, alternating double-digit come-from-behind victories with embarrassing blowout losses.

Things came to a head last Sunday in Arizona with a 40-11 loss against the Cardinals in which Indianapolis fell behind 27-3 at the half.

By Tuesday, even owner Jim Irsay had joined the chorus of concern. Among several messages he shared via his ubiquitous Twitter account was this: “We gotta get our heads out of r butts – WAKE UP!”

The boss’ eccentric tweets can range from mysterious to downright baffling, but there was no mistaking his intention this week. A promising season suddenly is sinking into a whirlpool, and it’s time to find a way to fight back against the current.

"We'll turn every stone and exhaust all resources, but at the end of the day, no matter what you do, what wrinkles you throw in there, you've got to execute and you've got to do it better," head coach Chuck Pagano said. "You've got to play better. You've got to coach better. I've got to do a better job across the board. We're not going to beat people with gimmicks and this, that and the other. You beat people with sound football — tough, hard-nosed, physical, disciplined."

That doesn't mean there won't be some changes on the field today.

Speedy Chris Rainey — the former University of Florida star who made plays as a rookie with Pittsburgh before being released in the offseason after an off-field incident — will take over as the kickoff return man following a flurry of transactions Tuesday.

Former return man David Reed and rookie tight end Justice Cunningham were waived, and safety Delano Howell was placed on season-ending injured reserve after a recurrence of his neck injury.

Safety Corey Lynch — a sixth-year veteran who has spent time with Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, San Diego and Tennessee — was signed to replace Howell. Returning outside linebacker Erik Walden — who was suspended for the loss at Arizona — fills one of the remaining two roster spots, and inside linebacker Josh McNary was called up from the practice squad to fill the other.

McNary — who served as an Army lieutenant the past two years — likely will make his NFL debut today on special teams. Also likely to debut is rookie wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, an undrafted free agent who was cut by the Buffalo Bills following training camp.

Rogers was promoted from the practice squad more than two weeks ago but has yet to be active on game day. With just four wide receivers on the 53-man roster, that's likely to change today.

At 6-foot-3, Rogers provides Andrew Luck with a unique target. But there's little clue as to how involved Rogers will be in the game plan.

"I think he's doing a great job (in practice), focused, did a great job of learning the playbook," Luck said. "Excited for him, excited about him."

After falling behind by a combined score of 93-12 in the first halves of the past four games, the Colts are hoping the new blood helps inject an early sense of urgency. Pagano said the coaching staff has had talks about pushing the offensive tempo in the first quarter as a way to get off to a faster start.

But anything and everything is on the table as Indianapolis searches for a way to turn around its recent troubles.

Winning, of course, is the best cure for any team.

"You've got a chance to seal the division, put a nail in the coffin, however you want to put it," Pagano said. "... Somebody's going to get hot going down the stretch. And so to win this football game and be 8-4 with four games to go and start trending in the right direction, we need to play well in all three phases. This game is huge."

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