Five plays for 19 yards may not sound like much, but it was enough for two Indianapolis Colts (8-4) scoring drives and a 10-0 first-quarter lead over the Houston Texans (3-9). It was all the Colts would need, as their defense dominated in a 19-3 win. The win sets up a showdown with the Titans (7-5) in Tennessee for AFC South supremacy this Sunday.
After six minutes of play, the Texans had four offensive plays for minus three yards and had turned the ball over twice. The Colts converted a Jonathan Wells fumble into a 31-yard Mike Vanderjagt field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Frank Murphy fumbled, Jermaine Lewis couldn't get a hold of it, then Murphy scooped it and fumbled again. Jason Doering made the recovery for the Colts at the 16-yard line. Peyton Manning hit Marcus Pollard on the next play for a touchdown.
Indianapolis' defense controlled the Houston offense the rest of the way. The Texans punted on their next 10 possessions and gained a meager 165 yards of total offense for the day. David Carr's 20 completions went for just 137 yards, a 6.9 average. He was also sacked six times, including three times by Brad Scioli. The Colts' Walt Harris also had a big day; the corner was credited with five pass breakups and caused the Wells fumble.
The Colts most likely would have logged a shutout, but Troy Walters fumbled a punt to set up a 34-yard Kris Brown field goal with less than four minutes remaining in the game.
"That was probably the only disappointing thing of the day, that they didn't get the shutout, because they worked hard and played well enough to get it." Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
The Colts offense was quiet, but efficient, and did not yield a turnover. Manning was 15 of 28 for 190 yards and a touchdown. A majority of those yards went to Marvin Harrison, who hauled in nine receptions for 101 yards.
Indianapolis is one game ahead of Tennessee, but the Titans have already beaten the Colts once this year. A second Titans win would give them the head-to-head tie-breaker and the top spot in the division.
In their last meeting, the Colts out-gained the Titans 378-198, but three consecutive turnovers in the first half helped Tennessee jump out to a 23-0 lead, before eventually winning 23-15.
A lot has happened since that game. While Tennessee has remained hot, winning six of their last seven, the Colts have rebounded since a loss to the Titans capped a three-game losing streak. Indianapolis has won all four games since that meeting, and it may not be a coincidence that they got hot after that loss.
"I think that was a wakeup call to everyone in this locker room. 'Hey, we're a good team. Let's go out and play like it.' And we have ever since," Scioli said.
Steve McNair played through pain to guide the Titans to a 32-29 come-from-behind victory over the Giants.
"He's a beast," Titans cornerback Samari Rolle said after the game. "I know people talk about a lot of quarterbacks, but I wouldn't trade Steve McNair for anybody. He gave us energy, he gave us heart, he gave us everything."
Despite playing with turf toe and bruised ribs, McNair completed 30 of 43 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Trailing 26-14 early in the fourth quarter, he led the Titans on two consecutive touchdown drives, running in a two-point conversion attempt following the second touchdown, to knot the score at 29-29 with just nine seconds remaining in regulation.
In overtime, McNair completed three of his four pass attempts for 47 yards to set up a game-winning 38-yard field goal by Joe Nedney.
McNair didn't take a snap in practice the week leading up to the Giants game, and didn't know until kickoff if he would be able to play. McNair felt considerable pain during pregame warmups, but eventually decided to gut it out.
"Just before the game, Steve was saying, 'We've got to have it,' and he had that look," Eddie George said. "So then I knew he would try. I don't know, he seems like he's more focused when he's hurt."
McNair almost didn't have a chance to complete the comeback. Following Tennessee's first touchdown of the fourth quarter, the Giants drove 78 yards to a first-and-goal at the Titans one-yard line. Two Tiki Barber runs, however, went for negative one yard, and Kerry Collins' third-down pass fell incomplete.
On fourth down, the Giants elected to kick a field goal and, with 2:21 remaining, Matt Bryant's 19-yarder put the Giants up by eight. Had the Titans defense surrendered one yard in three plays, Tennessee may have been out of the game, but they didn't and they weren't.
"That's what we wanted in that situation," Rolle said. "We at least kept it to eight, and eight means you have a chance. Our offense had a chance."
The Titans have several key players listed as "questionable" for Sunday's game against Indianapolis, including McNair, Rolle and linebacker Keith Bullock. But that has been the case for the Titans all year and in a big game such as this, how could anyone sit out after watching McNair's performance?
Texans (3-9) players and coaches are all saying they win and lose as a team, but if anyone wants to point fingers after their 19-3 loss to Indianapolis, there's a clear target. Two early turnovers and an offense that struggled all day masked a pretty good performance by the defense.
"You can't afford to spot them 10 points point-blank and get back in the football game," Texans coach Dom Capers said. "You never want to start the game like that. You're on the road, you're playing a good team and you're playing an offensive team you know is very efficient and capable of putting a lot of points on the board."
Houston's defense only gave up 278 yards to a Colts offense that was averaging 351 yards entering the game. They held Peyton Manning to a season-low 190 yards passing, and Edgerrin James to 65 yards on 20 carries. At one point they held the Colts without a first down on four drives and made them punt six consecutive times.
"What our defense did against their offense for the large majority of the game could have been one of our best defensive football games this season," Capers said. "It could have gotten very ugly had they not played the way they did. They did an outstanding job versus a very good offensive football team. They hung in there and fought right to the end and gave us an opportunity."
Unfortunately for the Texans defense, however, their offense's longest drive of the day was 25 yards. Their only points of the day came after a fumbled punt which gave them the ball at the Colts 21-yard line. They managed just four yards before kicking a field goal.
Houston travels to Pittsburgh (7-4-1) this week to face the AFC North-leading Steelers.