By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — For all intents and purposes, the Indianapolis Colts won their first division championship in three years Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But when second-year quarterback Andrew Luck walked into the postgame interview room just moments after a 22-14 escape against the Tennessee Titans, he looked much more like a survivor than a conquering hero.
"We know we can't survive our mistakes forever," Luck said, repeating a line he's used often in recent weeks. "I know it sounds a bit like a broken record, but sometimes you just got to gut a win out — no matter how ugly it is. I'll never complain about a win. I don't think you'll hear anybody in that locker room complain about a win, especially against a good division opponent like Tennessee."
At 8-4, Indianapolis now has a three-game lead over the Titans (5-7) in the AFC South race with four regular-season games remaining. The Colts can clinch the division crown with a win next week at Cincinnati or a Tennessee loss at Denver.
In fact, any Indianapolis win or Titans loss in the next four weeks will send the division title — and automatic playoff berth — back to the Circle City.
That was the primary take away from Sunday's unpretty slugfest. But the Colts insist there won't be any letdowns even with a major finish line so close.
"We're not exhaling," head coach Chuck Pagano said. "The division is not sewn up. We still got a lot of work to do as a football team in all three phases. So we're going to fight human nature."
Tennessee proved there still are plenty of holes for Indianapolis to fill.
The Colts had just 26 rushing yards on 16 carries when they took possession for the decisive drive with 8:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a slim 15-14 lead, by virtue of five Adam Vinatieri field goals, Indianapolis promptly marched 92 yards on 11 plays and took all but 1:56 off the clock.
Nine of those plays were runs, good for 78 yards, and most of the heavy lifting was done by running back Donald Brown — named the starter this week in place of a struggling Trent Richardson. But the biggest run might have come from Luck.
Facing third-and-2 at his own 43-yard line, Luck rolled out to his right. He picked up a couple of blocks from fullback Stanley Havili and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey then rumbled 24 yards into Tennessee territory for a big first down that kept the drive going and the game clock running.
The play was designed as a bootleg pass, but Luck felt safer keeping the ball himself, and his teammates adjusted as soon as they saw him run. He made a cutback near the sideline about halfway through the scramble that again showed how strong his field vision and instincts are.
"I felt like I'd get some extra yards so I didn't step out of bounds and wanted to stay in bounds and let that clock keep running," Luck said. "So it worked out."
Five plays later, Brown scored the Colts' only touchdown on a 4-yard run and gave the team an eight-point lead with less than two minutes remaining.
The Titans quickly got into Indianapolis territory on the ensuing possession with a 35-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Kendall Wright on first down from their own 21. But the drive ended four plays later at the Colts' 33-yard line when Fitzpatrick was intercepted by Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman with 24 seconds remaining.
It was the fourth takeaway for the Colts, who also got two interceptions from cornerback Cassius Vaughn and a fumble recovery by Freeman after a strip-sack by outside linebacker Robert Mathis.
"You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win in any game," Fitzpatrick said. "... It was a tough game for us, and especially me, on offense, and we didn't get the job done, and it hurts."
The turnovers could have hurt the Titans much more, but Indianapolis consistently failed to take advantage. Mathis' forced fumble led to a four-play, 1-yard drive that ended with Vinatieri's fifth field goal for the 15-14 lead with 1:14 left in the third quarter.
Vaughn's second interception on the ensuing drive set the Colts up with a first down at the Titans' 48-yard line, but they gained just six yards on three plays and punted the ball away.
All of the team's offense in the first three quarters came on Vinatieri field goals from 47, 48, 45, 37 and 49 yards out.
Tennessee twice took the lead, first with a 1-yard touchdown run by Fitzpatrick to make it 7-6 early in the second quarter and then with a 1-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to running back Chris Johnson to go up 14-12 midway through the third.
The Colts didn't panic, clawing back each time before putting the game away at the end. In the process, Indianapolis improved to 9-0 following a loss with Luck under center.
"Very seldom do you not have a speed bump or a road block (during an NFL season)," Vinatieri said. "But the good teams figure out a way to kind of get that behind you and keep moving forward. The great thing about this team, it has a ton of heart, a lot of resilience. We just find a way to go back out there and clear what happened the week before and just keep moving forward. So, hopefully, we can just keep building on this one."