NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There’s no need for the Indianapolis Colts to panic, despite their painful upset loss to the Tennessee Titans.

They should feel free to worry, however.

At this point in the Peyton Manning Era, every season hinges on whether the Colts reach, and win, the Super Bowl. That’s never been a lock, given the Colts’ spotty playoff history. Now, it’s clear how thin the margin will be between wins and losses this time around.

They can’t survive 60-yard field goals, penalties, poor or nonexistent tackling and dropped passes.

The Colts’ 20-17 loss to the Titans on Sunday at LP Field had all of the above, plus coach Tony Dungy calling a timeout to inadvertently seal the deal.

So it was a total team loss.

“Losing is no fun,” Manning said. “It’s awful. It’s miserable. It rips your guts out.”

The loss prevented the Colts (10-2) from clinching the AFC South and a playoff berth.

, and gave the Titans (5-7) their second straight comeback win over the Manning family. The Colts travel to Jacksonville next Sunday.

This game, as in many Colts games this season, hinged on the little things. A friendly wind helped Rob Bironas kick the third-longest field goal in NFL history to win the game. A pass interference call on Colts tight end Ben Utecht erased what would have been a four-point Colts’ lead with 3:38 left.

“I tell people all the time, football is about making plays,” Colts defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. “There’s going to be four or five plays a game that you make or don’t make that’s going to determine the game.”

The final big play was Bironas’ kick, which almost wasn’t attempted. With the score 17-17 and 12 seconds left, the Titans faced fourth-and-11 at the Colts’ 42-yard line. The Titans sent the field-goal unit in. Then coach Jeff Fisher called timeout and sent the punt team in. The Colts, after all, had one timeout left and would get the ball at the 50-yard line if Bironas missed.

“If we don’t make the kick, there are seven seconds left and they’ve got a timeout and (Manning) completes a pass of 15 yards, they’re taking a shot at a field goal,” Fisher said. “I am not going to do that. I sent the punt team out there. (Dungy) called a timeout. It’s an easy decision. You can take that chance when there are no timeouts left.”

Dungy said he called the timeout to make sure the Colts didn’t have too many players on the field. It’s the 12th game of the season. This is a veteran Colts team. Should that be a problem?

“That’s probably my fault,” Dungy said. “I didn’t want to have 12 men on the field and give them five more yards. They make a 60-yard field goal, you tip your hat to them.”

Dungy pointed out, rightly so, how much the loss to the Titans resembled the Colts’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys two weeks earlier. It was on the road, the Colts couldn’t hold a lead, and they had too many penalties (eight) and turnovers (two interceptions). Harrison (seven catches, 172 yards, no pouting) and Brandon Stokley, back from injury, both dropped passes.

Oh, yeah, and the Colts couldn’t stop the run when it counted.

Eventually, this might be known as the game that turned Vince Young into a big-time NFL quarterback (nine carries for 78 yard, 15-of-25 passing for 163 yards and two touchdowns, albeit with two rookie-level interceptions). But the Colts once again couldn’t contain running back Travis Henry, who rushed for 93 yards en route to his team’s 219 yards rushing.

“It’s our own fault,” Colts linebacker Cato June said. “It’s nobody else’s fault. When the opportunity arises, you have to be there to make the plays.”

It may be too late for the Colts’ defense to get much better at stopping the run. As a result, they can expect playoff games like Sunday, when the offense had only three second-half possessions and can’t afford any mistakes.

The Colts led 14-0 thanks to a 68-yard touchdown reception by Marvin Harrison and a 14-play, 81-yard drive, capped by a powerful two-yard touchdown run by Dominic Rhodes. However, Tennessee closed it to 14-10 at halftime, turning momentum after Keith Bullock intercepted a Manning pass with 31 seconds left in the half and Young moved the Titans 42 yards on three straight completions for a 20-yard touchdown pass to Drew Bennett.

Young directed an 11-play, 95-yard scoring drive to give the Titans their first lead at 17-14 early in the fourth quarter.

“That’s the first time we’ve lost a two-touchdown lead since I’ve been here,” Dungy said, “and it doesn’t feel very good.”

Nine of the Colts’ games have come down to a difference of a touchdown or less. On one hand, that makes for a pressure-tested team. On the other, it indicates some ongoing flaws.

The Colts can look back in irritation on the call against Utecht for pushing off Titans’ safety Chris Hope. They can debate whether it went beyond the usual jostling, particularly given that it came so long before the pass was delivered.

“The guy clearly pushes me off,” Hope said.

“I didn’t feel like I pushed in that fashion,” Utecht said.

“Obviously, it’s a shame,” Manning said.

It was a telling play, no doubt. It tells the Colts how fragile their record is, and how small the difference can be between winning and losing.

They shouldn’t panic.

Some high anxiety seems about right for now.

(c) 2006, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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AP-NY-12-03-06 1947EST

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