By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Comebacks have become commonplace for the Indianapolis Colts.
But Thursday night's rally against the Tennessee Titans still managed to stand out. Perhaps it was the importance of the contest in the AFC South race or the prime time kickoff that elevated this one.
More likely it was the product of Sunday's disastrous 38-8 home loss against the St. Louis Rams.
As the defense melted down with three consecutive personal fouls in the second quarter, and the Colts again fell behind by 14 points, a once-promising season suddenly began circling the drain.
It all changed the blink of an eye, with Indianapolis (7-3) putting up 17 points before Tennessee (4-6) touched the ball on offense again and scoring 20 unanswered overall in a 30-27 victory that gave the team command of the division standings.
"We definitely needed this one after last week, playing as bad as we played (against the Rams)," linebacker Pat Angerer said during a conference call Friday. "Thursday games are always sloppy. They're always a big challenge for everybody, short week. To be able to come out and not play as well as we could have and get a win versus a good team, a good conference team, it just shows a lot about the character of the guys on the team and how good our coaches really are."
Angerer fell on an onside kick with 1:54 remaining in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. It was the Colts' sixth win after trailing by 12 or more points during quarterback Andrew Luck's 26-game regular season career. And it improved the team's record to 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points during that same time period.
But fans weren't the only ones with their hearts in their throats as Titans running back Chris Johnson scored a pair of touchdowns to give the home team a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Things didn't improve much in the second quarter when a promising drive ended with an Adam Vinatieri field goal instead of a much-needed touchdown. Then came a defensive stand that seemed to be evidence of a team crumbling apart.
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis, cornerback Cassius Vaughn and outside linebacker Erik Walden were flagged for personal fouls on consecutive plays, handing Tennessee 41 yards in field position and three points on the scoreboard to take a 17-3 lead.
Walden's offense was the most egregious, coming on a head-butt delivered to helmet-less Titans tight end Delanie Walker.
"I'm sure something obviously is going to come down with the league," Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said Friday. "You just hope and pray it's nothing too serious. But you got to keep your cool. He said it last night in talking to you guys (media), and we talked about it as soon as they got off the field. We talked to all those guys. It doesn't matter, they always catch the second guy. That's forever."
Instead of contributing to its downfall, however, the misbegotten drive seemed to fuel Indianapolis.
The Colts answered with a 50-yard Vinatieri field goal just before the half then took the ball 74 yards on 11 plays, ending with a 6-yard touchdown run by Donald Brown to start the third quarter.
Luck reportedly gave an impassioned talk in the locker room at the half, but tight end Coby Fleener said his former Stanford teammate didn't need many words.
"He said maybe one or two sentences and led the breakdown," Fleener said. "That was enough to get his point across. It didn't have to be a five-minute, drawn-out speech."
The Colts got the break they needed on the next play when Titans return man Devon Wylie fumbled the kickoff. Indianapolis running back Boom Herron recovered at Tennessee's 20-yard line, and Luck made the most of a broken play to put the Colts ahead for good.
On a screen to wide receiver Griff Whalen, he noticed defensive end Derrick Morgan sniffing out the route. So he pump faked instead of throwing the football, and when Morgan leapt to bat down the pass, Luck escaped for an 11-yard touchdown run.
"He's a special player, and his ability as an athlete, I think, is underrated," Fleener said. "To be able to run and break tackles and make people miss, it's something that I don't think he gets enough credit for."
Pagano joked he missed Luck's halftime pep talk because he was in the trainer's room hooked up to a defibrillator.
"Believe me, it won't be cancer that gets me," he said, using dark humor to allay concerns about the Colts' seemingly constant deficits.
Pagano said the term "slow start" will now be eliminated from the locker room, just as "rebuild" was forbidden during his first season at the helm.
"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy now," he said. "It's all we've talked about. I'm to the point now where we might as well just put 14 on the board before we ever kick the damn thing off and just have the guys at least look up there and say, 'Oh, crap, we're down 14. We better get going.'"