The effort improved, but the result did not, as the Tennessee Titans lost their sixth consecutive game, 30-28, to the Indianapolis Colts Thursday night.
Peyton Manning, who had thrown 11 interceptions in his past three games, was back on the mark against the beleaguered Titans defense, completing 25 of 35 passes for 319 yards, including two touchdowns.
Tennessee dug itself a 21-0 hole in the first half, and though they made a game of it, it wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Bo Scaife caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Kerry Collins at the end as a consolation score, getting the Titans as close as they had been all game, but just not close enough.
“We dug out of it. If we could have had a couple of things fall our way. I like the way we bounced back, but you don't get credit for losses,” said Scaife, who had two short TD catches in the second half of four and two yards.
The loss further sinks the Titans into the AFC South basement at 5-8, ending a promising season that had begun 5-2 before sinking into the abyss. So where does this floundering team go with the playoffs no longer anything but the slimmest of slim possibilities.
“You play ball,” safety Michael Griffin said. “That's why we play. It's not like next week we've got Houston, and you don't want to play no more. I still want to play, and I wish we could go out there and play one more quarter. You could see there was opportunity there. The opportunity was there to win a ballgame.”
It was, but even that opportunity was a long shot after a terrible beginning that found Indianapolis cruising with an early 21-point lead.
Indy led 7-0 in the first quarter, and when the Colts scored on Javarris James' 1-yard run, a same-old bugaboo had done in the Titans. Indianapolis had run 22 offensive plays, going 4 of 5 on third down, and the Titans had run three.
It got much worse before it got better for the Titans, as Manning hit Pierre Garcon from a yard out to make it 14-0 on Indianapolis' next possession.
To make it hurt worse for the Titans, both Colts TD drives were kept alive by third-down penalties that set up first-and-goal situations. Michael Griffin was called for pass interference in the end zone on Garcon on the first drive.
And Chris Hope was whistled for defensive holding on Reggie Wayne to extend the Colts second touchdown march. Hope argued the call on the field and explained his position after the game in the locker room.
“Within five yards, the crossing route, there's a lot of contact between linebackers, receivers, tight ends. That's the area where you can be more physical,” Hope said. “I beat him to the spot. He's running through my leverage pretty much. The ball is thrown into the ground, so I don't think it was a catchable ball anyway.”
Catchable or not, the call went against the Titans, and so was the game.
Indy's second TD had been set up by Kenny Britt's fumble at the Tennessee 41, and when Ken Amato's snap on a punt sailed over Brett Kern's head, the Colts took over in great shape at the Titans' 19. From there, it took Manning just two plays to find Garcon from 19 yards out for the score.
In recent weeks, that's all it would have taken for the Titans to have packed it in for the night.
But on Thursday night, Tennessee showed some fight.
The offense, which had gone 14 quarters without a touchdown, finally broke through with 49 seconds to play before halftime, as running back Chris Johnson – remember him? - scored from a yard out to cut the lead to 21-7.
That new-found momentum carried over through halftime, as the Titans took the opening kickoff and marched 62 yards in seven plays to pull within 21-14. Craig Stevens took a pass from Kerry Collins from seven yards out for the touchdown.
While the Titans tried to rally, Indianapolis kept tacking on field goals to pad its lead and keep the Titans at arm's length.
Adam Vinatieri connected from 21 yards out and 28 yards out before the Titans scored with 7:59 left cut creep within 27-21.
That's when the Titans had an opportunity, but elected to punt the ball back to Manning, rather than try a fourth-and-1 from their own 34 with 4:57 left.
It proved to be a fatal mistake, as Manning hit Garcon on a short pass, and the receiver escaped three would-be tacklers to gain 43 yards and get in range for Vinatieri to boot the decisive field goal from 47 yards, to push the lead to nine points, good enough to withstand the final consolation score by the Titans as the final gun sounded.
For the Titans, Thursday night was good in the fact that it quieted the whispers and accusations of the team quitting the week before against the Jaguars. But it still wasn't good enough to stop the slide or keep their playoff hopes alive.
“Last week, there were a lot of people that questioned us about quitting. We didn't quit,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “We showed that, being down 21, and we still had a chance to come back and win.”
Added center Eugene Amano, “We kept fighting. We kept clawing and scratching and trying to get back from that hole we dug. I'm proud of us. We didn't quit. There's still some fight in us.”