The Tennessee Titans hadn’t beaten the Indianapolis in 11-consecutive games, but last night they put an end to it for good.
On a brisk October afternoon in 2011, the Indianapolis Colts took the field at Nissan Stadium (then LP Field) for a midseason matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts’ longtime All-Pro signal caller, had not taken a snap all season due to having undergone a series of neck procedures during the offseason. As a result, the Colts were 0-8.
After a lackluster effort from backup QB Curtis Painter, who threw two interceptions and did not find the end zone once, the Colts left Nashville 0-9. The surging Titans, led by seasoned veteran QB Matthew Hasselbeck, left with a record of 4-3, a game above the .500 mark. Little did they know that it would be another six years before the next time they defeated their divisional foe.
The Titans would lose their next 11 matchups against the Colts. Some were close, some were far from it. The story of the Titans’ dismal losing streak against the Colts is one that, though painful for fans, perfectly illustrates the rollercoaster ride the Titans franchise has been stuck on over the past six years.
It was at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on December 18, 2011 when the streak began. The Titans sat at 7-6 with aspirations for the franchise’s first playoff berth in three years. The Colts’ season, in contrast, was all but over. They had no quarterback, a coach on as hot a hot seat as there’s ever been in the NFL, and a winless record of 0-13.
Though the Titans had committed three turnovers, they sat within a touchdown of the lead with just over three minutes remaining in the game. When QB Dan Orlovsky and the Colts took the field needing to put the game on ice, it took them only one play. Orlovsky handed the ball to RB Donald Brown, who sprinted for an 80-yard touchdown.
This gave the Colts their first win of the season, putting them at 1-13. The Titans, who were gunning for a wildcard spot, were almost out of luck. They finished the season at 9-7, losing the last AFC wildcard spot to the Cincinnati Bengals due to tiebreakers.
The next matchup of the streak was perhaps the closest, as it had to be decided in overtime. It was the first time the Titans faced rookie QB Andrew Luck. The defense certainly didn’t make it easy on him, intercepting him once and sacking him twice. It still was not enough.
Luck and the Colts offense methodically marched down the field on the first possession of overtime, capping off the drive with an acrobatic Vick Ballard touchdown. The drive, which started at the 20-yard line after a touchback, required Luck to throw only two passes. The Titans finished that season with a record of 6-10, while the Colts earned a playoff berth with their impressive 11-5 finish.
As the years continued to go by, the Titans continued to march mediocre quarterbacks onto the field while the Colts began to win the division each year. The Titans parted ways with head coach Mike Munchak in the same year that the Colts made it past the first round of the playoffs for their first time. Less than a month after the Titans’ disastrous two-win season under Ken Whisenhunt came to an end, the Colts appeared in the AFC Championship.
At that point, however, the playing field began to even out. The Titans drafted quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick of the ensuing draft, and the Colts’ refusal to build a quality offensive line caught up with them. Their running game continued to be ineffective, and Luck began missing chunks of time with injuries to his upper body.
It was during this period of time the Titans suffered their most embarrassing defeat of the streak. They trotted into Indianapolis on January 3, 2016 for the game that handed them their ninth straight loss to the Colts.
Both teams were without their young, talented quarterbacks. Mariota’s impressive rookie campaign came to a brutal end against the New England Patriots when he suffered a season-ending MCL sprain. Luck’s season ended after he lacerated his kidney in a November game against the Denver Broncos.
In relief of Mariota, the Titans started QB Zach Mettenberger, who was replaced in the game by Alex Tanney. The Colts were forced to resort to signing free agent quarterbacks off the street, as the backup and former Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck was also injured. Josh Freeman, whose last NFL pass came over two years prior, started the game. He was relieved in two-minute situations by Ryan Lindley.
Against a makeshift quarterback duo that had worked with the Colts for less than a week, the Titans were unable to get a victory. Freeman and Lindley had a combined passer rating of 77.4, and the Colts were able to sack Titans quarterbacks four times.
The loss was the Titans’ 13th of the season, and their terrible record netted them the first overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Though the Colts’ winning streak continued for another year, it was clear at the end of the 2016 season that the Titans would put an end to it sooner rather than later.
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A month after the ninth straight loss to the Colts, the Titans hired head coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson. Robinson traded the first overall pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a plethora of draft picks, beginning the Titans’ rebuilding process.
In their first season under Mularkey and Robinson’s regime, the Titans finished with a 9-7 record. Unfortunately, their poor record within the division, including two more losses to the Colts, caused them to narrowly miss the playoffs.
Heading into 2017, the Titans made no bones about their goal. They sought to win the division, and win games within the division. Against the Colts on Monday Night Football, they did just that.
Marcus Mariota, who missed the Titans’ prior game against the Miami Dolphins with a hamstring injury, was a warrior. With the hamstring injury clearly still plaguing him, Mariota trusted his protection, worked from the pocket, and carried the Titans to a 36-22 primetime victory.
Much to the delight of Titans fans whose cries of jubilation filled Nissan Stadium in the late hours of Monday night, the streak was finally over.
Here are some numbers from the dismal, six-year streak that you might find surprising.
2,179: the number of days the streak lasted.
8: the number of quarterbacks who took snaps for the Titans during the streak.
99: the sum of point differential between the Titans and Colts from the eleven games.
6: the number of playoff games the Colts appeared in during the streak.
When the streak began, the Titans were flirting with a playoff spot, and the Colts were on their way to the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. As the streak continued, the Colts became perennial Super Bowl contenders with Andrew Luck, and the Titans earned top-two draft selections two years in a row.
With the streak now over, the Titans sit at .500 with a meeting coming up against the lackluster Cleveland Browns, followed by their bye week. They are in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. The Colts, who will likely be without Luck for another few weeks, are in sole possession of last place in the division.
While the Colts will become much more competitive upon Luck’s return, the Titans are a step ahead of them right now as a team. They were a step behind for six years, and the key to avoiding another skid is consistency.
The Titans may not win their next ten matchups against the Colts, but they certainly will not lose them all. Monday night’s win did more than end a streak; it turned a page for the Titans. The monkey is finally off their back, and the relief that provides could propel them to end another streak: eight years without a playoff berth.