The Herald Bulletin
---- — There was a lot of focus on the "new" Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Three new starters — Donald Brown at running back, Jeff Linkenbach at right guard and Darius Butler at left cornerback — and three new additions to the game day roster — kick returner Chris Rainey, linebacker Josh McNary and wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers — received the bulk of the pregame attention.
But it was two of the team's oldest players who made the biggest impact in one of the Indianapolis Colts' most important victories this year.
Adam Vinatieri, in his 18th season, kicked five field goals to provide all of the offense in the first three quarters. And outside linebacker Robert Mathis again made his presence felt with a third-quarter strip-sack of Tennessee Titans' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that led to a field goal to put the Colts in front for good en route to the 22-14 victory.
It gave Mathis an NFL-high 15.5 sacks this season and left him just a half sack shy of the single-season (16) and career (107) franchise records set by longtime running mate Dwight Freeney.
Mathis is 2.5 sacks ahead of St. Louis' Robert Quinn in the race to lead the league for the first time in his 11-year career.
"As I grew up watching and looking at the old Deacon Jones film, that would mean a lot to be able to get that very first Deacon Jones Award," Mathis said Monday, referring to the late Rams defensive end whose name will adorn the award given to the league sacks leader for the first time this season. "So now I'm working hard to get it, but at the same time, team goals are first and foremost."
Winning always has been the most important statistic to Mathis, and the more the Colts win the more important the next game becomes.
On Sunday, they'll head to Cincinnati to meet the 8-4 Bengals in a game that could determine the No. 3 seed for the AFC playoffs. The winner will have a one-game lead — plus the tie-breaker advantage — with three games left in the regular season.
There's also still a chance the Colts (8-4) can catch New England (9-3) for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Indianapolis currently holds the tiebreaker in that matchup if it can find a way to match the Patriots' record.
"I ain't going to sit here and lie and tell you we don't scoreboard watch," Mathis said. "We do. But at the same time, we have to be focused on what we're doing."
Mathis is doing his job better than he has at any other point in his career. This is the fifth time he's posted a double-digit sack total, but he'd never had more than 11.5 in any single-season before this year.
The fact those totals are coming in his first year without Freeney drawing away attention on the other side is a surprise to some. But not to the fifth-round who has made a career out of proving doubters wrong.
"People feel what they feel," Mathis said. "I really can't change how or why they think that, I guess. But (I) control what I can, and that's when the play's there to be made, just make the play. Let them think what they want to think and just play football."