NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Titans hosted division rival Indianapolis a year ago as the NFL's hottest team, in prime time. They beat the Colts on their way to a 10-0 start and a wire-to-wire win in the AFC South.
Now the Titans are mired in a stunning 0-4 start. The Colts? Well, they haven't lost a regular-season game since that visit to Nashville, with 13 consecutive wins the league's best current streak. Peyton Manning has never started a season better, shaking off any doubts that the coaching change from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell would affect Indianapolis (4-0).
Manning can join Kurt Warner and Steve Young as the only quarterbacks to start a season by throwing for 300 yards or more in five straight games Sunday night. He insists records do not matter in this rivalry between the only teams to win the AFC South.
"One play here or there that goes the other way that may result in a win or loss column, but I still see a very good football team," Manning said.
That's also what Caldwell sees.
"All the way across the board, all we see is a great team with talent, good offence and defence, and then also a real solid kicking game," Caldwell said. "We know as we look at them on film that they're a team that you better get ready to play, because they're tough and hard-nosed and can certainly create havoc."
The Titans have been searching for answers to explain their woeful start and are desperate for just one win. They sank to a new low in last week's 37-17 loss at Jacksonville.
"It's kind of similar to a bad dream," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "One thing about bad dreams is you always wake up, and we need to wake up sooner rather than later, and looking forward to it being this week."
Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher tried a new tact. He's telling his team that Sunday night against the Colts is their new season opener, a perfect opponent in a division foe. The team has billed this game a "Code Blue" in a long-planned promotion featuring 70,000 free light blue T-shirts to rev up the sold-out crowd.
"I mean, that's a good way to look at if you can forget about everything that's happened the last four weeks," Fisher said.
The Colts lead the series 16-13 and won the last meeting 23-0 in a meaningless finale to last season. But the Titans have won three of the last five.
Indianapolis couldn't be hotter, coming off a 34-17 win over Seattle. The Colts will be playing their third prime-time road game this season before getting to rest up in their bye week.
Tennessee couldn't be more desperate. This is the Titans' lone home game in October before a trip to New England.
"We got embarrassed last week, so I think we kind of checked that one off the list," Titans centre Kevin Mawae said. "We're going against another opponent. We're not going out worrying about not embarrassing ourselves. We're going out to get a win. Right now we've got to focus on the small picture, which is one game at a time."
The game plan for Tennessee to snap this drought means keeping Chris Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher with 424 yards, on the field more, and not turning over the ball, which would be a first this season for the Titans. It's the keepaway plan Miami used so well against Manning until letting him get the ball last.
"That's the deal," Fisher said. "Peyton's not throwing complete passes when your offense is on the field."
That offers the best protection against the NFL's top passing offence. Manning is averaging 330.3 yards a game, and he has nine touchdown passes with only three interceptions.
The Titans are tied for 31st against the pass and held only rookie Mark Sanchez under 200 yards passing. Ben Roethlisberger (363), Matt Schaub (357) and David Garrard (323) all have shredded their defence. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who missed the Jaguars loss with an injured right hamstring, will be back, but Nick Harper may be slowed by sore ribs.
Now comes Manning, whose next TD pass moves him out of a tie with Fran Tarkenton and into sole possession of third all-time with 342.
"The guy, he never ceases to amaze you," Caldwell said. "He just continues to get better."
The Colts are healing up as well, with middle linebacker Gary Brackett expected back from a knee injury that kept him out the past two games. Defensive end Dwight Freeney was limited against Seattle but played and had a sack. The one question could be the health of left tackle Charlie Johnson's left knee on a line that has allowed Manning to be sacked only twice.
Fisher has been busy defending his decision to stick with veteran Kerry Collins rather than switch to backup Vince Young as the best way for the Titans to get that first win. Seeing the Colts' performance over the past year is an example Tennessee can only hope to mimic, starting Sunday night.
"Personally, once we get that win, it's going to be, 'Katie bar the door,"' Collins said. "I really feel like we get that win and we'll start rolling."