The Titans, given up for dead with a four-game losing streak a month ago, dominated their chief division competition Sunday, forcing three turnovers and cashing in on all them en route to a win that evened their season mark at 4-4 and left them tied with the reeling Colts for the AFC South lead.
On Sunday, the Titans did it mostly with defense, with an aggressive assault on helpless Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who was not only without Edgerrin James, but also missing his backup Ricky Williams, who injured a hamstring late in the week.
The Titans' blitzing defenders showed Manning no mercy, and it paid huge dividends in the first half, as Tennessee came away with two fumbles and an interception that turned into 17 points on the way to a 20-0 halftime edge.
"We talked all week about the Colts being a turnover type of team," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "When they get turnovers on defense, they have won. When they turn it over on offense, they have not been able to overcome them, and that is what happened today."
Tennessee's primary goals in the game were to force Indianapolis into turnovers when possible and to try and keep Manning and the Colt offense off the field as much as possible.
"I was just trying to come up and make a tackle, and then Robaire [Smith] came up and put that big lick on him, and I don't know which one of us caused it," Williams said, "but I just remember looking on the ground and seeing the ball, and I just remember picking it up and hoping it was a fumble."
After an officials huddle and replay challenge, it indeed was a Colts fumble that put the Titans offense in business at the Indianapolis 44. From there, Tennessee managed Joe Nedney's 28-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Titans harassed the Colts into another mistake on the next series when Tennessee linebacker Peter Sirmon slid in front of a slant pass intended for Marvin Harrison. Sirmon picked off the ball and rumbled 25 yards to the Colts 31 to again set the offense up in plus territory.
"I think [Manning] thought I was blitzing, and they ran a slant, and I was just in position, and he threw it right to me," Sirmon said.
Not wanting to settle for another field goal, the Titans cashed in all the chips from Sirmon's turnover when Mike Green slipped out into the flat after fake to Eddie George on third down and took a 3-yard TD throw from Steve McNair. "The play before we did run the ball, and they were definitely expecting that," Green said. "We got the turnovers and that momentum just propelled us."
The turnover spree wasn't over yet, as the Titans saved their biggest blow for last. With Manning back to pass, Williams came full speed untouched from the blind side and not only leveled the Colts quarterback, but set the ball free.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck came behind Williams, picked it up and raced 61 yards – including a 15-yard dance at the end that drew a flag – for a 17-0 Titans lead.
"I really didn't expect it. I expected the back to block out on it," Williams said of his hit. "I just had to hit him hard and try to get the ball out, and luckily it came out. Then, when I looked up, I saw [Bulluck] running down the field, and I knew no one was going to catch him."
The turnover run ended there for the Titans, but their dominance did not. They padded their lead with a 34-yard Nedney field goal before the half and another from 39 yards away to open the second half.
Up 23-0, the Titans were content to pound away with George and the running game. In all, George managed 95 yards on 22 carries, getting 60 of it in the second half.
But the storyline Sunday was the return to form of a defense that had struggled through much of the first half of the season with too many low points to mention. But Sunday's play was textbook Titans, and it was good enough to push them back atop the standings.
"We did some good things and created some turnovers," said defensive end Kevin Carter, who had one of the Titans' three sacks. "We've been struggling to find chemistry all year between our front four, our linebackers and our secondary.
Those guys back there stepped up, and [the defensive line] was able to get some pressure. And Jim Schwartz called a good game and we were able to confuse them a little bit and get some pressure on the quarterback."
The exclamation point of how well the defense played came at the end of the third period when for the second straight week, the Titans stuffed a running back on fourth-and-goal at the 1. This time, it was Lance Schulters stopping Mungro on the left side.
The Colts, forced into a one-dimensional passing offense, did get a pair of Manning touchdown passes to make it close in the fourth quarter, after Schulters and Williams were both out with injuries. But even then, the Titans squashed a final Indy possession with under two minutes left to grab both the road win and first place.
"Thank God, we're back in the mix now," Bulluck said. "I think a lot guys knew what this game was about, and they paid extra attention to detail."
The Titans were without both Schulters and Williams in the fourth quarter. Both had played their best game of the season together before leaving. Schulters dislocated his shoulder on his fourth-down stop of Mungro, but may have to play with a harness next week. Williams missed the entire second half after suffering a shoulder and neck stinger.
McNair suffered a slight groin strain, but not before he tied Warren Moon's club record with a TD pass in his 21st consecutive game.