The art of drafting is practiced routinely in stock car racing, often to dramatic effect. One car builds tremendous forward momentum as it rides in the slipstream created by another and — at just the right time — pulls out and lets said momentum propel it to the front.
The Tennessee Titans staged a football version of that strategy Thursday night after they spotted the Indianapolis Colts a 21-point first-half lead.
Only when it came time to make a daring move with the potential to give them the lead did coach Jeff Fisher take his foot off the throttle. Rather than attempt a fourth-and-1 from his own 34 with fewer than five minutes to play, Fisher chose to punt.
As a result, when the Titans made their final move they were too far behind. Bo Scaife’s 2-yard touchdown reception as time expired, and the subsequent point-after, left them two points short and they lost their sixth straight game, 30-28.
That finish was decidedly anticlimactic for the sellout crowd at LP Field, which booed the decision to punt at the moment it was made.
“It was fourth-and-1 … I had three timeouts and there was 4:57 [to go] when I looked at the clock,” Fisher said. “We needed to have the ball last to beat them.
“… You could always second-guess that, but I felt with a punt if we could get a stop, get the ball back and all we’d need is a touchdown for a chance to win the game.”
The only thing that didn’t happen that way was the stop. Indianapolis instead drove 46 yards and got a 47-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri, which ultimately provided the winning margin.
The Colts managed only one first down on that drive, but it was a big one. Pierre Garcon turned a short reception on second-and-10 into a 43-yard gain (the second-longest play of the contest) when he broke a couple tackles and got free down the right sideline.
“They had some momentum going, so that was huge,” Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell said. “… They were feeling good about what they were getting accomplished from an offensive standpoint.”
At the start of play, the Titans seemed ill-equipped to come from behind, no matter how small the margin, following three weeks of scoring malaise. They entered the contest 13 quarters removed from their last offensive touchdown and with increasing questions about their ability to run the ball.
Thus, when the Colts sped off to a 21-0 lead with touchdowns on three of their first five possessions, it seemed a safe assumption that they had left the home team in their dust.
“I think we answered a lot of questions as far as quitting,” linebacker Stephen Tullouch said. “Last [Sunday], a lot of people asked us, ‘Did we quit?’ … We were down 21 and we made it a ballgame. No one thought we’d make it a ballgame, but we kept on fighting down to the last play of the game.”
They began to close ground when the offense, which punted twice and fumbled away possession twice (the second time on a bad punt snap) on its first four drives, went 55 yards in 1:36 and scored a touchdown with 49 seconds to play in the first half. That same unit then took the second-half kickoff and went 62 yards in seven plays for another touchdown, which made it 21-14.
Then, in stark contrast to those three first-half touchdowns allowed, the defense held quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts’ attack, which ranked in the NFL’s top five in yards and points per game, to three field goals over the final two quarters.
Manning finished 25-for-35 for 319 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, which was only marginally better than Tennessee’s Kerry Collins (28-39, 244 yards, three touchdowns). Plus, running back Chris Johnson topped 100 yards rushing for the first time in three games (22 carries, 111 yards, one touchdown) and had a season-high eight receptions for 68 yards.
All told, the Colts outgained the Titans by a mere 34 yards, 399-365.
“We tried to limit them in the second half to just field goals — we did that,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "We just started too slow. That was the biggest thing for us. … Yards don’t matter, points do with Peyton Manning.”
That’s what Fisher said he was thinking on the final drive, which exhausted the last 2:55 of game time.
At one juncture, he started to send out the field goal unit with the idea that he would get three points and then try for an onside kick. In that case, though, he eschewed any kicking option in an attempt to get as many points as possible as quickly as possible.
“We were talking about it, but a touchdown against them is hard with the way they’re built defensively,” Fisher said. “… I was hoping we would get some shots at the end zone there and we did.”
Of course, by then it was too late.
The decision to punt on the preceding drive stalled their comeback and allowed Indianapolis to expand its lead just far enough.
“Coach [Fisher], he’s the one that calls the shots,” Scaife said. “I think we had all the confidence in the world — Kerry was playing pretty good, we have the best running back in the NFL.
“But I know what he was thinking. You have a great quarterback on the other side and you don’t want to give him too many chances to put us away. It was a tough call for him, and that’s just how it is.”