By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — All the pain the Indianapolis Colts have been feeling since Sunday's embarrassing 38-8 loss to the St. Louis Rams? The Tennessee Titans share it.
If misery truly does love company, Thursday night's nationally televised showdown in Nashville, Tenn., is going to be an affection aficionado's dream.
The Titans (4-5) are coming off a 29-27 loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars that was cringe-inducing in its own right — because it handed the last-place team its first victory of the season. But Tennessee sees its upcoming date with the Colts (6-3) at LP Field as a shot at redemption.
A win pulls the Titans within one game of the AFC South lead and sets up a juicy rematch Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"This is a playoff game for us," Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak said during a conference call Wednesday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "We have to win this football game, and we play (Indianapolis) twice in three weeks. So I think we're going to find out real fast what our situation is, when you're playing the top team in your division twice. So, yeah, we dug a hole. No doubt about it. But there's still a way out, and that's how we look at it."
That way would become significantly more clear if the Titans can figure out how to get running back Chris Johnson back on track.
The sixth-year veteran had something of a bounce-back season in 2012, rushing for 1,243 yards and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Both numbers were the third-highest of his career and represented significant improvement from a 2011 season that finished with 1,047 yards and a 4.0 average.
This season, Johnson's roller coaster ride has experienced more valleys than peaks. Through nine games, he's averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry and has amassed just 546 yards and two touchdowns.
He appeared to break through two weeks ago with 150 yards and both scores during a 28-21 victory against the Rams. But he regressed last week with 30 yards on 12 carries against the Jaguars.
Indianapolis is coming off a game in which it struggled mightily to contain the speed of St. Louis receiver/return man Tavon Austin. The fleet-footed rookie racked up 310 total yards and scored on a 98-yard punt return and passes of 81 and 57 yards.
That might give Johnson reason to believe his own speed could be a game breaker Thursday night, but history is not on his side. He's had just two 100-yard games in his career against the Colts, and last season he failed to reach the end zone on 40 combined carries in the two annual meetings.
When Johnson looks at tapes of Indianapolis this season, he sees a familiar challenge.
"They've always had a good defense," he said. "Those edge rushers, you got (Robert) Mathis on the edge, and he's made a lot of plays and a lot of sacks. Just making a big disruption. Then you got those safeties back there making a lot of plays, coming downhill and just making plays in the secondary."
LaRon Landry has joined Antoine Bethea in the defensive secondary to give Indianapolis a pair of versatile safeties that are strong against the pass and the run, and Johnson has taken notice.
But he's also been around this rivalry long enough to understand anything can happen — and often does. From the AFC South's inception in 2002 until 2011 no team other than the Colts or Titans won the division title.
When Indianapolis went 2-14 in 2011, it's first victory came at home in Week 14 against Tennessee. Last season, as the Colts' turnaround made them the darlings of the NFL, Indianapolis needed overtime to beat the Titans on the road and a second-half comeback to survive at home.
So Tennessee isn't about to let four losses in its last five games cloud its confidence this time around.
After all, a win against the Colts could be just the jump start needed to spark the Titans' own turnaround.
"Any time you play a division game, it's pressure," Johnson said. "It's always going to be a close game. It doesn't matter what the record is because it's a team that you play every year twice a year. Any time it's a game like that, it's always very important. Every game like that is like a playoff game, like a must-win."