By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody will be happier to see the calendar turn to December than the Indianapolis Colts.
The past month has seen the team embarrassed by a pair of NFC West opponents and pushed to its limit in comeback victories against two AFC South rivals.
The Colts played just one home game in November, and lost it. 38-8.
They survived the month with a 2-2 overall record and cling to a two-game lead in the AFC South. But if December starts just as poorly, real trouble will be brewing.
The Tennessee Titans (5-6) visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday as the sixth and final seed for the AFC playoffs. Win, and they cut Indianapolis' division lead to a single game with four remaining. Lose, and just one more victory for the Colts (7-4) or one additional loss for Tennessee will send the AFC South title back to the Circle City for the first time since 2010.
"You know how this team has responded to adversity," Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said Monday, one day after his team's 40-11 loss at Arizona. "They've been always able to bounce back in these certain situations, and so we fully expect as a staff and as a team and our players to have a great week of preparation. We know what's at stake, but we're going to stick to the process and do what we have to do Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in order to give ourselves a chance to redeem ourselves, get this taste out of our mouth and take a stranglehold on the division."
If that sounds familiar, it should.
On Nov. 14, the Colts headed to Tennessee facing a very similar scenario coming off a 38-8 loss against the St. Louis Rams. After falling behind 17-3 in the second quarter, Indianapolis rallied for a 30-27 victory and pushed its lead in the division to three games.
The Titans' playoff chances seemingly were on life support after that loss. But a win in the final seconds Sunday against the Oakland Raiders — and assorted jostling throughout the conference — put Tennessee on top of a list of six AFC teams with identical 5-6 records.
Now the Titans can get right back into the race for a division title and a home playoff game with a win on Sunday.
"A division game, no matter, Tennessee is always important," Colts cornerback Vontae Davis said. "That's personal. We know Tennessee is going to come in here ready to play, and we're going to have our hands full with another good game."
Two blowout losses in the past three games have the fan base on edge as the final month of the season nears.
But Indianapolis understands it still controls its own destiny. The loss to the Cardinals cost the team its standing as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and it now trails the New England Patriots by one game in the race for a first-round bye.
But pursuits as noble as division championships and home playoff dates can seem awfully distant when the defense can't seem to get off the field and the offense can't stay on it.
The Colts forced Arizona to punt just twice in Sunday's loss, and the offense compiled just 15 first downs while converting 5 of 13 third-down opportunities.
The only phase of the game that came out relatively unscathed was special teams, where Sergio Brown continued a quietly spectacular season by blocking a first-quarter field goal attempt.
But Indianapolis trusts its leadership and appears willing to stay the course. A long, cold November has not led to panic in the locker room.
"We're a family," inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "All you got to do is look to the locker next to you and know who you're playing for out here and just know that we're going to pull it together. We'll be alright."