NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans have split four straight games decided by seven points or less, and more may be on the way as Tennessee plays its final three games against familiar divisional foes.
Tennessee lost at Atlanta 23-17, defeated Tampa Bay 23-17, won at Buffalo 23-17 and fell 22-17 last week against New Orleans, despite a late rally. The Titans (7-6) visit the Indianapolis Colts (0-13) Sunday, and coaches and players are bracing for another close one.
Tennessee won the first meeting with Indianapolis 27-10, but coaches and players cautioned Thursday that the Colts are tougher at home and have more talent that their record without Peyton Manning at quarterback indicates.
Sixth-year fullback Ahmard Hall said four straight games decided by a touchdown or less is just Titans football.
"We've always played close games here. My six years here, there have been a lot of those games that have come down to the wire," Hall said. "I've grown accustomed to those kinds of close games" that require players to avoid "getting uptight until the clock strikes zero."
Tennessee is 3-4 in seven games decided by a touchdown or less this season, and must win out in order to have a shot at the playoffs. The Titans went 1-6 in games decided by eight points or less last season, and went 5-3 in such games in 2009. They were 4-1 in games that close in 2008, when the team last won the AFC South and went to the AFC playoffs.
Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said close games are evident throughout the league and what the NFL seeks to provide each week.
The numbers support this, with 100 of the 208 games played prior to Thursday's Jacksonville at Atlanta game being determined by seven points or less and with 39 of those being determined by three points or less.
"You want to keep the people in the stands until the end of the game, so the owners have this figured out pretty good," Palmer said.
The late-game drama provides increased interest in the game, surges of adrenaline for players and spikes in blood pressure for coaches.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner said any team would prefer to take an early lead and keep building on it, but the opposing team has something to do with that as well.
"You never want to have those, but that's kind of the way the National Football League is," Verner said. "You've got a lot of good players out there, so it should come down to the last play of the last drive. I think the fans like it. We deal with it. We practice those situations."
While the seven close games are in line with the league average of 6.5 per team, Tennessee has played in a higher percentage of games with less than 40 combined points.
There were 75 games with 40 points or less combined points in the first 14 weeks of this season. The Titans have had five straight games with 40 combined points or less, and the scoreboard hasn't reached 40 total points in nine of 13 games this season.
That point range is fine for defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, as long as the Titans emerge victoriously.
"We want to have an attitude," Gray said. "We want to be a clean defense, but we want to make sure guys are not coming in here saying, 'We've got an easy win when we come in here against the Tennessee Titans.' … Our thing last week was go out and win the game. Don't worry about in between the 20s, make them kick field goals. We knew how good they were. That's the thing that we've got to do and then go out and expect to win the game."
Tennessee became the second team this season to hold the Saints without a touchdown in the first half of a game, but mustered three points in the first half. New Orleans eventually scored two touchdowns in the second half, taking a 22-10 lead with 7:01 left in the game.
Rookie quarterback Jake Locker, who relieved Matt Hasselbeck (calf) in the second quarter, led the Titans on a three-play touchdown drive, connecting on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington with 5:58 left and marched the Titans to the New Orleans five-yard-line, where the Titans had two shots at the winning score with seven seconds remaining.
"You hate to lose the close games like (Sunday), but you'd rather that happen than what did against Houston (41-7 loss) and Pittsburgh (38-17 loss) where we kind of fell apart in the second half when we got behind," Munchak said. "One of the things out of that game is we were down 12 with seven minutes left and we weren't really doing much on offense, and all of a sudden, we start playing as good as we have in a while as a team. I think that's the part we have to take from that game. That's the exciting part against a good football team."
Hall said the Titans believe in their ability to come back from deficits and execute when the games are on the line.
"Guys are definitely confident this year," Hall said. "Coach Palmer, Coach Munchak, Coach Gray have picked the systems that guys have bought into. You get guys going out there playing their hearts out. That's what you're seeing. Guys are not going to quit."