Colts in control after knocking off Titans

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   NASHVILLE -- What a difference a week makes.
   Last week, the Indianapolis Colts' special teams unit gave up a touchdown and good field position on numerous occasions against the New England Patriots. Sunday afternoon, they crashed Tennessee Titan kick returner Eddie Berlin's wall and turned it into points.
   In the battle for the top slot in the AFC South, turnovers and injuries were almost too much for the Tennessee Titans to handle. But the home squad fought from a 29-13 deficit with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to close the gap against Indy.
   However, the Titans failed on a two-point conversion attempt and fumbled the football on a late punt return, giving the Colts room to run towards home field advantage in the playoffs with a 29-27 win at The Coliseum.
   "What we had today was two very evenly-matched teams that played a close game which was obviously decided by turnovers," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "When two teams are that even and you have a discrepancy in turnovers like we did today, that is certainly going to be the difference in the ballgame."
   "Great effort by both teams," he said. "I'm very disappointed for my club, especially the defense, as many times as they were put in position to turn away an offense like that."
   The Colts (10-3) forced four fumbles, three on special teams, setting up the scores to take the victory.
   "We knew it was going to be a tough game," said Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy. "We said last night that we were going to need a lot of different contributions and we got that from special teams and our big time players."
   The other battle that took place was the showdown between the top two MVP candidates in the NFL, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Titans quarterback Steve McNair.
   McNair keyed the fourth-quarter rally with two touchdowns, finishing the game with 235 yards while Manning threw for 228 yards.
   "I think you can say that this is definitely a rivalry now," said Dungy. "They won two last year and we won two this year. It's tough to come in here and get a win, especially when Steve (McNair) is on the other side. He played great and we were fortunate to be able to keep the ball away from him a lot because of those turnovers."
   The Colts ended the Titans' 10-game home winning streak and improved to 6-1 on the road this season.
   Things didn't go their way early as Tennessee (9-4) took the ball and smoothly drove it down the field. Eddie George made a 26-yard gain while McNair used his arm to set up Gary Anderson with a 40-yard field goal to take the initial edge.
   Indy responded with some runs from James. It allowed Mike Vanderjagt to kick his first field goal of the evening, a 21-yarder.
   McNair continued to show poise early, finding McCareins and Erron Kinney before calling his own number with a two-yard leap into the end zone to give his team a 10-3 lead going into the second quarter.
   The Colts were forced to punt during their next drive, but the Titans wouldn't have the ball long as Shad Meier fumbled after a 16-yard reception. Manning gained 10 yards on a keeper, setting up Vanderjagt with his first of three field goals in the second quarter.
   Tennessee couldn't get around Indy's defense, punting after a four and out. Manning used throws of 24 and 22 with James rushes to give their kicker another field goal, this time a 36-yarder.
   On the ensuing kickoff, Titan returner Eddie Berlin was leveled, causing a turnover. Manning worked Marcus Pollard and Marvin Harrison into the red zone, and Vanderjagt stepped it up and took aim with another field goal to give Indy their first lead of the game at 12-10 going back into the locker room.
   Peyton's unit took the field after the second-half kickoff and made a strong drive behind runs from James and penalties from Tennessee. Troy Walters made two grabs on the drive, the latter setting up a two-yard score for James.
   During the kickoff, it was déjà vu all over again for the Titans when Berlin was stripped inside the 20-yard line. Ricky Williams made the tackle.
   "It was one of those things that I have no explanation. It was really a nightmare," said Berlin. "I was trying to make a play so badly out there and get a chance at some returns. Ball security was not as good as it should have been today."
   "He just got the ball knocked out. The object is to hand the ball back to the official," added Fisher. "We had it knocked loose today. When you turn the ball over where we did, you are going to give up points, and that was the difference."
   That set up a 26-yard kick through the uprights from Vanderjagt.
   Tennessee had its most productive drive of the quarter when Derrick Mason got open for some McNair throws. A couple of George runs gave Anderson room for a 50-yarder.
   Indianapolis then came out firing the ball down field. Manning touched Marvin Harrison with a 16-yarder and a one-handed 42 yarder before James plowed his way into the end zone for a five-yard score.
   Tennessee began its comeback on the next drive as McNair hit Wycheck, Mason and McCareins. He led the unit down to the goal line, where Robert Holcombe made a one-yard scoring grab.
   After a pair of swapped punts, Tennessee got fortunate again when McNair found McCareins with grabs of 29 and 18 before Mason pulled in a two-yard score.
   The two-point conversion attempt just missed and the squad faked an onside kick with a deep ball. The Colts went three and out to set up punter Hunter Smith.
   Smith boomed a 52 yarder to McCareins, who was forced back with a fumble which the Colts recovered. Manning took a knee and sealed the deal.
   "It was a huge win, no question, but it was a big game," said Manning. "It's such a funny thing, but I saw Fisher before the game and he said 'we'll probably see you all again.' He was saying that before whoever won. He's probably right. We'll certainly enjoy it tonight."
   James wound up with 95 yards on the ground for the Colts with his pair of scores, while Harrison passed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving again with 124 yards on 10 receptions, including he and Manning's 600th completion together.
   That ranks second all-time in the NFL behind former Buffalo Bills teammates Jim Kelly and Andre Reed.
   McCareins had 76 yards receiving for Tennessee, while George had 51 yards on the ground on 11 carries.
   Tennessee meets Buffalo this Sunday at home.
   There will be more on the Titans-Colts battle in Tuesday's STAR.