When both delivered throwback performances Sunday, it lifted the Indianapolis Colts closer to the playoffs.
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Vinatieri, the oldest player in the league tied a career-high with five field goals and matched an NFL record with four 40-plus yard field goals in one game.
Brown, the Colts’ forgotten 2009 first-round pick, scored on a 4-yard TD run with 1:56 left to give Indianapolis a 22-14 victory over Tennessee.
“Those are by no means chip shots,” Andrew Luck said after another troubling offensive showing with only 264 total yards. “To have a guy like that (Vinatieri), it, well, it really makes a difference.”
Indy (8-4) has a three-game lead over the Titans (5-7) with four left and a sweep of the season series. The Colts can wrap up their eighth AFC South title in 11 seasons with one more win, one more Titans loss or a tie by either team.
It hasn’t been easy reaching this point, especially after losing five offensive starters with season-ending injuries, and with Trent Richardson struggling.
So coach Chuck Pagano shook up things after two blowout losses in the last three weeks. He surprised many by moving Brown into the starting lineup ahead of Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012 by Cleveland who Indy traded for in September. Pagano replaced Mike McGlynn at right guard with Jeff Linkenbach and also started cornerback Darius Butler ahead of Cassius Vaughn.
Vaughn picked off two of Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s passes, and Brown continued to beat up on the Titans despite rushing for only 8 yards in the first 52 minutes. He had 46 yards on the final drive and gave Indy its only touchdown.
“I guess it was time to put something together and with the division hanging in the balance, the guys manned up,” Pagano said, explaining that Brown earned a rare start and the two backs would both continue rotate. “Just like the first game down there, we were able to run the ball, chew up the clock.”
They needed Vinatieri even more than Brown.
The soon-to-be 41-year-old resembled his much younger self, tying a career high with four field goals in the first half and matching his full-game career high when he hit a perfect 49-yarder for a 15-14 lead late in the third quarter. His fifth field goal also equaled Jason Elam‘s NFL record with a 16th 100-point season, and he joined Morten Andersen as the only players to score 800 points with two teams. He’s the 10th player in league history to make four 40-yard field goals in a game.
To Vinatieri, it was just another work day.
“You never know how it’s going to go, and you don’t know how you’re going to be needed and used,” he said. “Today was one of those days that I was needed and used a bunch.”
Without him, the Colts might be lamenting their first back-to-back losses since December 2011.
Luck was just 17 of 32 for 200 yards with no TDs and one interception.
Fitzpatrick wasn’t much better. Though he scored on a 1-yard plunge in the first half and gave the Titans a 14-12 lead in the third quarter on an ugly 1-yard TD pass to Chris Johnson, Fitzpatrick was 21 of 37 for 201 yards with one TD. Johnson managed only 69 yards on 18 carries.
“I didn’t play well. We had a shot at the end there,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t get the job done, and it hurts. For me to come out and not play well hurts.”
The miscues proved costly.
Tennessee gave away three points just before halftime when Moise Fokou‘s personal foul extended the half by one play. Vinatieri cashed in with a 37-yarder.
Then, after taking the 14-12 lead, Fitzpatrick had the Titans in scoring position again until NFL sacks leader Robert Mathis stripped him of the ball. Jerrell Freeman scooped it up and ran it to the Titans 32. Four plays later, Vinatieri hit the 49-yarder to give Indy the lead for good.
“It puts us in a spot now where we’ve got to win four games in a row,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We have no control of what that may or may not mean.”
Fitzpatrick was picked off two more times before Brown sealed it with his strong run up the middle.
“Pros grind it out,” Brown said. “They take it one week at a time and just keep rolling along.”
The Titans lost two more tight ends Sunday. Delanie Walker left with a concussion in the first quarter and Collin Mooney was taken by golf cart into the locker room with what appeared to be a left leg injury in the second half. … Indy defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois (sprained foot) and running back Daniel “Boom” Herron (strained pectoral) should have MRIs on Sunday night, Pagano said. … Kicker Rob Bironas joined Al Del Greco as the only Titans in the NFL’s 1,000-point club.
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