On the final day of the NFL season, the Tennessee Titans need not monitor any games or watch any scoreboards, except one: their own.
If the Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts at the RCA Dome on Sunday night in the final game of the NFL’s regular season, they will clinch the last AFC wild card spot and go to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003 season.
If they lose, they are eliminated, and Cleveland will advance to the postseason, regardless of the result of the Browns’ game against San Francisco. Whichever team makes it will play at either San Diego or Pittsburgh in a wild card game next week.
As a result of this game’s significance, NBC used its flex option and moved the game to Sunday night.
“This is a playoff game for us, and that’s how we have to play,” said Tennessee running back LenDale White.
Last season, the Titans (9-6) needed to beat New England in the final game and have three other games go their way in order to advance, but they lost to the Patriots 40-23.
They’ve put themselves in a more favorable situation this year by winning three of their last four, including a 10-6 win over the Jets last week. They mustered just 273 yards of total offense, but sacked Jets quarterback Chad Pennington six times and allowed just 68 yards rushing, shutting out New York in the second half.
“What we’ve got to do is just stay focused and play our game,” quarterback Vince Young said about facing the Colts. “I really feel like we match up with the guys pretty good. All we’ve got to do is just not think about what’s ahead and just think about that game on Sunday.”
Of course, beating the defending Super Bowl champion Colts (13-2) on the road will be no easy task, even though Indianapolis is already locked into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and could rest at least some of its starters for parts of the game.
“I think we make a big mistake by thinking we’re going to go in there and beat up on some backups,” said Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had three sacks last week, giving him 12 for the season. “Indy’s the defending world champs. That says a lot about their depth. They’ve been banged up for a good part of the year, playing with some backup guys.”
Tennessee hasn’t won at Indianapolis since 2002, losing four in a row by a combined 133-47. The only close game was last season, when the Titans rushed for 214 yards and held Peyton Manning to a season-low 166 yards passing, but blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost 14-13.
The Titans, however, have given the Colts problems the last three times they’ve played them overall. They lost 22-20 in Nashville in Week 2 this season, but beat Indianapolis at home last season 20-17 on a 60-yard field goal by Rob Bironas, their only win in the last nine games of the series.
For Tennessee, Young has been erratic all season, and his 69.5 passer rating is second-worst among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts.
But the Titans have won with a solid running game and a stingy defense. They’ve rushed for at least 127 yards each of the past four games, and their defense has allowed just 16.5 points per game and forced 10 turnovers over that span.
Behind White, who eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the season last week, Tennessee has the fifth-best rushing offense in the NFL (134.1 yards per game), while the Titans have the sixth-best rushing defense (95.5 yards per game).
Indianapolis has battled numerous injuries this season, and nothing is at stake for his team, but Colts coach Tony Dungy will finally get receiver Marvin Harrison back on the field. Harrison, who will likely start after practicing this week, has been out since Oct. 22 due to a left knee injury.
Dungy wouldn’t commit to how much action the eight-time Pro Bowler will see.
“But he’ll start the game and we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Despite all the injuries, the Colts enter having won six in a row for the second time this season, after starting 7-0. But they’ve never been without Manning, whom Dungy will likely rest for at least a half. That means the Browns’ playoff hopes could be in the hands of backup Jim Sorgi.
Browns fans may protest, but the Colts also rested a number of players, including Manning, during the final games of the 2004 and 2005 seasons, when their postseason seedings were similarly sealed. They even did so last week, as running back Joseph Addai had just six carries and Manning didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got the same type of situation this week, where the game really doesn’t mean much, and we got some rest for some of our regulars at the end of the game,” Dungy said. “That’s probably what we’ll do this week only a little earlier. We do plan to play everybody, we’re just not sure how long yet.
“You play for your team, you coach for your team and you can’t worry about anyone else.”
Statistics don’t figure to play a big part in Dungy’s decisions, but Manning needs 55 yards passing to reach 4,000 for the eighth time and NFL receiving yards leader Reggie Wayne needs 77 yards for his first 1,500-yard season.