NASHVILLE - The game seemed to be slipping away from the Indianapolis Colts midway through the third quarter Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee.
Running back Jordan Wilkins was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and a 15-play, 73-yard drive that included two previous fourth-down conversions came up empty.
In that moment, it seemed as though the Colts were headed toward a second straight deflating loss. Instead, the next five-and-half minutes of game time might have saved the season.
Behind a dominant third-quarter performance and big plays from all three phases, the Colts beat the Tennessee Titans 34-17 and forged a tie atop the AFC South standings with seven weeks remaining in the NFL’s most unconventional regular season.
“This one was a huge game,” Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We knew it. It was going to be huge either way. Coming off last week’s game, not finding a way to beat the (Baltimore) Ravens, it was even bigger. And we’ll see them again in 16, 17 days.”
Indeed, this rivalry will resume Nov. 29 at Lucas Oil Stadium, and the rematch will have a high bar to clear.
This one played out like a heavyweight fight. The Titans (6-3) moved ahead on the scorecards in the early rounds as both sides felt each other out. Then Indianapolis (6-3) scored a knockout with a flurry of punches from the middle of the third quarter until the early part of the fourth.
It started after Wilkins was stopped on fourth-and-goal with the Colts trailing 17-13 and 7:24 to play in the third quarter.
Defensive lineman Denico Autry and DeForest Buckner stood up Tennessee running back D’Onta Foreman on second-and-1 from the 20-yard line, and Autry followed with a third-down sack of Ryan Tannehill that forced the home team back to the 10.
Then Indianapolis caught a break. Trevor Daniel badly shanked the ensuing punt, and the Colts took possession at the Titans’ 27-yard line.
Four snaps later running back Nyheim Hines followed left guard Quenton Nelson into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown and Indianapolis’ first lead.
Hines finished with 115 yards on 17 touches – 12 carries for 70 yards and five catches for 45 more – and two touchdowns on his 24th birthday.
“This is the best birthday ever,” he said. “I’ve had surprise birthdays and a lot of things, but I’ve never played on my birthday. I’ve never had a game like this on my birthday. I was scared because it was either going to be a good game or a bad game.
“The Lord blessed me to have a great game. My 24th birthday is a birthday I will never forget for sure.”
The Colts were just getting started.
After a three-and-out, linebacker E.J. Speed broke through the line and blocked Daniel’s punt. Cornerback T.J. Carrie scooped it up and ran 6 yards for a touchdown and a 27-17 Indianapolis lead.
“We had a blitz-screen lined up to where I could knife inside the seam, and it came open,” Speed said. “Once it came open, it was time to make a play. I made the play, we scored and it changed the game.”
The two touchdowns came just 59 seconds apart, and Tennessee’s special teams nightmare wasn’t over.
The Titans drove to the Colts’ 18-yard line early in the fourth quarter, but a holding penalty stalled the drive.
Then Stephen Gostkowski missed a 44-yard field goal, and it became clear it wasn’t Tennessee’s night.
Indianapolis provided the knockout blow moments later with a drive that was jump-started by a 15-yard face mask penalty. Rookie Michael Pittman Jr. – who set a career high for the second time this week with seven catches for 101 yards – had a 40-yard reception and a 6-yard catch to set up third-and-1 at the 2-yard line.
Reserve quarterback Jacoby Brissett came in for a quarterback sneak and scored the touchdown that provided the final margin with 9:21 to play.
It was an exclamation point on a performance that saw the Colts rack up 430 yards of total offense. Rivers was particularly sharp, finishing 29-of-39 for 308 yards with one touchdown and a 105.5 quarterback rating while operating mostly in a no-huddle attack.
“We got in the no-huddle mode, and he and I have done a lot of that together over the years,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “We talked about it during the week – he and I and (offensive coordinator) Nick (Sirianni). He and I and Nick talked about it and then in the last 24, 48 – 24 hours just really decided to have conviction about going with it almost the whole game and Philip is just in this control that puts him in the driver’s seat.”
As a result, Indianapolis now finds itself in the driver’s seat in the AFC South.
The Colts came in with a chip on their shoulder. Only one of their previous five wins came against a team with a winning record, and Reich said early in the short week the team had to prove it could play a game like this against a quality opponent.
Titans star running back Derrick Henry – the AFC’s rushing leader -- finished with 103 yards on 19 carries, but the Indianapolis defense mostly lived up to its No. 1 overall ranking.
Tennessee finished with 294 yards of total offense and didn’t score in the second half. Tannehill finished 15-of-27 for 147 yards with one touchdown – a 5-yard pass to Foreman on the opening drive.
The Titans added a 50-yard field goal by Gostkowski and a 1-yard touchdown run by tight end Jonnu Smith to build their first-half lead.
Indianapolis answered with a 13-yard touchdown reception from Hines sandwiched between 24- and 43-yard field goals by rookie Rodrigo Blankenship.
It wasn’t perfect, but it got the Colts even midway through a four-game stretch that might define its season. The quartet began Sunday with a 24-10 loss against the Ravens and will continue Nov. 22 at home against the Green Bay Packers before the rematch against Tennessee.
“You can tell I’m excited,” Rivers said. “This was a huge win. I knew this was big. Again, we’ll enjoy it more a little bit (this weekend) and regroup and get ready for the Green Bay Packers at our place.”