Based on the hiring and drafting done by the two franchises and the projected timetable of their rebuilds, Tennessee should be ahead. But after Indianapolis swept the season series with a 27-23 victory Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was clear, yet again, how much distance there is between the two teams.
The biggest ingredient in that, of course, is Andrew Luck.
Luck, in his 13th NFL start, overcame a giant blunder and led his team to another win. On the other sideline was Jake Locker, picked a year earlier and seven spots later in the first round. He played a great first half and then caved in, throwing two awful interceptions as the Titans watched a lead evaporate.
Dare we compare?
It’s the way the league works. You show me your franchise quarterback, I'll show you mine.
The stat lines serve to show how quarterbacking can be about so much more than numbers:
Locker: 22-of-35 for 262 yards, 1 sack, 1 TD, 2 INT, 71.4 passer rating.
Luck: 16-of-34 for 196 yards, 4 sacks, 1 TD, 2 INT, 50.6 passer rating.
Yet it was Luck’s team that seized control and won, finding more plays in big moments and making fewer, less-costly gaffes.
Locker had two plays that characterized his lack of command after intermission.
He handed the Colts their first lead with 5:36 left in the third quarter when he threw short out of his own end zone for Nate Washington on the right side. Cornerback Cassius Vaughn easily sliced inside of Washington to pick it off and waltzed 3 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-20.
Then, with 3:22 left in the game and the Titans behind by four, Locker followed up a 6-yard Chris Johnson run for a first down with a hurried quarterback sneak for no-gain -- on what was first-and-10.
Coach Mike Munchak tried to cover for his second-year quarterback in both situations, saying the Titans shouldn’t have given Locker the option to throw on the first play, sneaking it instead. Coaches didn't think the Titans got a first down in the second circumstance, calling for the quick sneak. Realizing they'd earned a new set of downs, they were unable to convey a change in plan amid the noise and chaos of the game.
To his credit, when he was told Munchak said the Titans shouldn’t have put him in that position with the offense coming out of its own end zone, Locker said “I should be able to handle that position.”
On the sneak, he thought he had a third-and-1 and simply has to have more game awareness.
That is not something Luck lacks.
“The more situations you’re in, I guess your awareness builds up,” Luck said. “Coach [Bruce] Arians preaches situational awareness and not playing like robots. The more situations we’re in, we learn from them -- if good things happen, if bad things happen. It’s uncanny how many times we just walk through something on a Saturday and it shows up that Sunday or the following Sunday.”
As for Luck's biggest error -- his knee may have been down when he released a pick-six to Will Witherspoon as Derrick Morgan was taking him down, but he said he "probably deserved" his fate for the dumb decision.
The strength of most franchises directly correlates to the strength of the franchise quarterback, and although Locker may turn into a solid one, Luck has produced more victories than anyone outside the team imagined and has a city salivating at the prospect of the next dozen years.
The Colts are now 8-1 in one-score games and on the verge of a playoff berth. Arians, the interim coach, said he’s not expecting any blowouts because the team is too young to produce them.
Luck hit Reggie Wayne for a pretty 4-yard touchdown to pull the Colts to 7-7 in the first quarter. His second-most important pass of the game may have come near the very end. With the Colts down to one functional running back and Arians worried about Vick Ballard's ability to hold on to the ball because he had suffered a stinger earlier in the game, the Colts went for the clincher with 2:25 left in the game.
Luck was surprised when his first two reads weren't open, then threw over the middle to fellow rookie Dwayne Allen, and the tight end muscled the ball away from linebacker Zach Brown for a first down that put the Colts in position to kneel and run out the clock.
The defense for the second straight week enabled Luck to produce an impressive late comeback by getting him the ball back. Cornerback Darius Butler picked off a Locker pass thrown behind Washington to set up a field goal that expanded the lead to four and the defense forced a Titans punt with 2:52 left.
“They deserve more than half the credit,” Luck said of his defense. “They put us in great position all year, especially today. It’s the best team game in the world. I really do think so. You have to rely on so many different guys in so many different phases of the game and it’s fun when you can get team victories.”
A lot of the abilities of the other 52 Colts are enhanced because of their confidence in Luck. The same thing may be working against Locker, who doesn’t yet have that moment announcing to the Titans' roster that he’s unquestionably the guy.
Said Morgan of Locker: “He’s got to go through some growing pains, every quarterback does. He’s just going to continue to get better. It’s a different situation than Luck, a different offense, a different team.
“You want to compare, but it’s different. I don’t think it’s fair to compare. He’s going to come out on top, he’s just got to go through this adversity.
The Colts have faith because of what they’ve seen and have come to expect. The Titans have faith because, at this point, there is little else they can do.