It wasn't pretty, but for the third straight game the Indianapolis Colts pulled out a victory and now stand alone atop the AFC South at 4-1.
In the past three contests the Colts have beaten the expansion Houston Texans, escaped with a win over the currently 0-6 Bengals and used a last-second field goal to beat the Ray Lewis-less Baltimore Ravens, 22-20.
Edgerrin James continued to struggle, gaining just 43 yards on 17 carries. Peyton Manning was sacked five times. They were three of 13 on third downs. But as much as anyone wants to point to the competition the Colts hurdled during this stretch of schedule, the manner in which they hurdled them or the inconsistencies they have shown on both sides of the ball, the fact remains Indianapolis won the games they were supposed to win.
"We need to get to a point where we're consistently playing good football. At times we are, but at other times we aren't. That's what's making things a little more difficult than they need to be. The good news is we're winning in spite of that. We're getting good effort and making big plays at the right time, but down the road we're going to have to do things a little sharper," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
After scoring a touchdown on their opening drive to jump out to a 7-0 lead, the Colts had to rely on four Mike Vanderjagt field goals to keep them in the game Sunday, but trailed 20-19 late in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens had their chances to slam the door shut. With 3:30 remaining, the Ravens faced third-and-nine at the Indianapolis 34, but Colts defensive end Chad Bratzke sacked Chris Redman, forcing a punt instead of a possible Matt Stover field goal.
On the ensuing drive, the Colts faced a fourth-and-10 at their 36. Manning's pass fell incomplete but a controversial pass interference call saved them. The Ravens sideline, especially coach Brian Billick, went into a tirade. But Dungy saw it the same way the officials did.
"I thought it was a pretty easy call," he said. "The guy's back was turned and he made contact before the ball got there."
The 22-yard penalty kept the drive alive and two plays later Manning hit receiver Marvin Harrison for 15 yards to help set up Mike Vanderjagt's 38-yard, game-winning field goal.
Vanderjagt's four field goals prior to the game-winner had him feeling confident and he let Manning know it before the final drive.
"He said, 'Buddy, I'm feeling good; just get it anywhere you want,'" Manning said. "He said, 'If you get the ball across the 40, I feel I can make it.'"
With the Jaguars' loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Colts are now in sole possession of the AFC South lead at 4-1. They travel to Pittsburgh for a Monday night matchup with the 2-3 Steelers.
It's amazing how much a win can change a team's outlook. With their 23-14 win over the Jaguars, the Titans enter a bye week having ended their four-game losing streak. When they return to action against the Cincinnati Bengals, they should be playing with top wide receiver Derrick Mason and a renewed sense of confidence.
Almost as important as the win, Tennessee got Eddie George and their ground game moving for the first time this season. The four-time Pro-Bowler had been held to 65 yards or less in six consecutive games dating back to last season, before gaining 113 yards on the ground Sunday.
"He just ran hard. He ran in the pile a number of times. And again, there were plays where he just pressed the hole and ran. Had he cut back he would have been in the secondary, so there's still a lot of improvement there for the run game," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "But Eddie ran hard and he took the game over; you could tell."
The Titans controlled the Jaguars from the outset. They scored on their first three drives of the game, knocked quarterback Mark Brunell out of the game and intercepted David Garrard's first pass. At halftime the Jaguars had just 77 yards of offense. The Titans opening drive went 80 yards.
Tennessee's secondary was also reason for encouragement. Ranked 28th in the league against the pass entering the game, the Titans held the Jaguars to just 68 yards passing and intercepted two passes. The first interception by Andre Dyson set up a field goal and Lance Schulters' interception iced the game.
"It was Lance getting the right depth, overlapping, breaking on the ball and making the play," Fisher said. "Same thing with Dyson. Dyson made a big play earlier. We needed to protect the football. We turned it over once, but when you are able to get it back a couple of times against a team like this, it makes a difference."
The bye week gives the Titans a chance to heal a few moderate injuries before taking on the Bengals in Cincinnati. Jevon Kearse's return is still expected to be several weeks away. Tennessee, 2-4, will play in Indianapolis following the trip to Cincinnati.
The Houston Texans had their best outing since opening day, taking a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead before falling 31-24 to the Buffalo Bills. The offense certainly had its best outing, picking up 338 yards of total offense, nearly 150 yards over their average entering the game. David Carr had his finest performance as a pro, going 12 for 23 for 218 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran one in from 17 yards out.
"We're seeing him become more comfortable with our offense," Texans coach Dom Capers said. "That's encouraging because we know if we're able to continue to do this with David, he gives us explosive capabilities for our offense."
Even after surrendering two fourth-quarter touchdowns to fall behind, the Texans had a chance to pull even. With under four minutes remaining in the game, Carr and the Houston offense got the ball and drove 61 yards to the Buffalo 12. With less than a minute remaining, however, Carr threw three incomplete passes to seal the Buffalo win.
"You go out there and fight your butt off and it hurts to lose like this," cornerback Marcus Coleman said. "We left everything out there on that field."
The most frustrated Texan had to be former Bills linebacker Jay Foreman. With the Texans ahead by seven early in the fourth quarter, Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw incomplete to Peerless Price on third-and-one. Instead of having to punt, the Bills were given a first down when Foreman exchanged words with Price and was flagged for a personal foul. On the very next play Foreman was hit with another 15-yard penalty, this time for facemasking Bills running back Travis Henry. Three plays later Bledsoe hit Eric Moulds for a 23-yard touchdown pass.
"I take full responsibility. It was a selfish play on my part," Foreman said of the first penalty. "I'm not that player and not that type of person. There's been a lot of pressure on my part, you know, and I did something I never have done before and probably will never do again."
The biggest loss for the Texans this week, however, may have occurred off the field. On Tuesday, Houston announced it was placing tackle Tony Boselli on the injured reserve list, ending his season. The former All-Pro tackle was the team's first pick in the expansion draft, but slow progress following two offseason shoulder surgeries forced Boselli and the Texans to pull the plug on this season.
"We were never going to compromise him to just get him on the field," Texans General Manager Charlie Casserly said. "We were not going to put him in the position to get injured again."
The Texans are 1-4 and in last place in the AFC South. They travel to Cleveland this weekend.