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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Titans crush Colts, remain only unbeaten

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Brandon Jones (81) grabs a pass for a 15-yard gain as he is hit by Indianapolis Colts cornerback Melvin Bullitt on Monday.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Don’t call the Tennessee Titans the NFL’s best team just yet. They’re happy with being the league’s last unbeaten club and grabbing a chokehold on the AFC South away from the Indianapolis Colts.

LenDale White ran for two touchdowns, Chris Hope intercepted Peyton Manning twice and the Titans routed the Colts 31-21 Monday night.

The Titans (7-0) have won an NFL-best 10 straight regular-season games, matching the second-best streak in franchise history. More importantly, Tennessee took control of the AFC South away from the team that has dominated this division in winning the past five titles.

The Titans have won three of four in the series, and linebacker Keith Bulluck said they made a statement with their latest victory.

“The Colts were the team to beat, and I think now, the Titans are the team to beat,” Bulluck said.

Kerry Collins outmanaged Manning, throwing for 193 yards with no interceptions.

“We’re trying to get where they’ve been,” Collins said. “It was a big step for us tonight I think. We obviously got off to a good start, and to get one more against a division opponent is again real big at this time of year.”

Jeff Fisher joined Tom Landry and Don Shula as the only NFL coaches to start 7-0 in their 15th season or later. He credited his defense for staying patient against Manning and his team for focusing on the Colts, not its surprising start.

“The season’s still early, and there’s a lot of games left,” Fisher said. “Our focus was on the Colts and trying to prepare ... to try to find a way to beat them. That was the commitment that we made this week. We’re not looking ahead. We’ll now look ahead to next weekend. As far as the division and all that stuff’s concerned, we’re just trying to win ballgames right now.”

Coach Tony Dungy had called this a must-win for Indianapolis to have any chance at winning the division, but now his Colts (3-4) have lost two straight in their worst start since Manning’s rookie season. The Colts trail Tennessee by four games with nine games left and will host New England on Sunday night.

“It’s going to make it doubtful for us to win the division, but ... we’ll see what the last nine games bring,” Dungy said. “If we play well and get ourselves on a streak and get going, we can be a playoff team. I think once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen as we’ve seen two of the last three years.”

Manning had the Colts up 14-6 in the third quarter on two touchdown passes to Dallas Clark against a Tennessee defense that came in having allowed only one TD pass through the first six games.

But the Titans came up big after tying it at 14 with 3:21 left in the third.

The NFL’s stingiest scoring defense stopped the Colts on fourth-and-short on consecutive drives at the end of the third and start of the fourth. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch stopped Dominic Rhodes behind the line on fourth-and-1 with less than a minute left in the third. Rob Bironas’ second field goal, a 48-yarder, gave the Titans a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.

“You’re there in the fourth quarter and you have to make the plays to win the ballgame, and when that time came, they made them all,” Dungy said of the Titans.

Tennessee responded by driving 66 yards over 6:51, and White scored his second TD — giving him 10 for the season. Hope picked off Manning again with 3:38 left. Rookie Chris Johnson scored his own TD on a 16-yard run and the sold-out crowd clad in Tennessee light blue began celebrating another win.

Manning scored on a 1-yard run with 1:17 left, but Titans safety Michael Griffin recovered the Colts’ onside kick attempt that didn’t travel 10 yards.

“I hope we can play a little ticked off,” Manning said. “There’s a healthy way to be angry and try to bounce back and do something about it. We had some chances tonight. We had the lead, and then just they made the plays in the second half, and we didn’t.”

Manning put the Colts up 14-6 with his second TD pass to Clark, a 19-yarder on their opening drive of the second half. That seemed like it might be enough on a night when all the Titans could manage were field goals.

They eventually got a little help from the Colts, who again were without Bob Sanders, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, running back Joseph Addai and cornerback Kelvin Hayden.

The Titans drove 80 yards in 14 plays capped by White’s 1-yard run on third-and-goal, assisted by an illegal contact penalty on Marlin Jackson with a flag coming a little late after Justin Gage had dropped a pass on third-and-5. Then Melvin Bullitt was called for pass interference on tight end Bo Scaife, putting the ball at the Indianapolis 18.

Tennessee then tied it at 14 when Collins rolled to his right and found fullback Ahmard Hall for the 2-point conversion.

Notes: Hope had been the only starter in the Titans’ secondary without an interception, and he turned in his first two-pick game of his career. ... The Colts are 29-10 in the AFC South. ... The Colts are 38-7 when Manning throws for two or more TDs. ... The Titans are 16-2 since 2006 when intercepting two or more passes. ... Tennessee did not allow a sack for a fifth straight game. ... Fisher tied Mike Ditka, his old coach when Fisher played for the Chicago Bears, for 22nd in NFL history with 127 career wins.

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10 NBA players ready for a breakout season

by Greg Varkonyi

Raymond Felton: Time to step up (gettyimages.com)
Raymond Felton: Time to step up (gettyimages.com)

Monta Ellis, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Redd, Ben Wallace - the list could go on and on. These are guys who flew under the radar for a year or two before busting out and showing the league that they are ready to contribute.

Every year we are blindsided by some players whom we had never heard of as they take their game to that next level. Here is my list of 10 players who will either take that big step on their way to NBA stardom or will falter and remain in the also-ran category...

1. Raymond Felton (Charlotte Bobcats): It is time for Felton to step his game up. Larry Brown is the right kind of coach for this guy. Unlike Stephon Marbury, Felton is known to accept authority and he should be willing to change his on-and-off offense for a pass-first mentality. In all fairness this is sort of a last shot for Felton. He has put up decent numbers, but at this point he has looked more like a backup and less like the starter they were hoping him to be.

2. Gerald Green (Dallas Mavericks): I was waiting for him to have a bust-out season last time around in Minnesota. Well, things did not really go according to plan. The Wolves were loaded with players filling the same position but far more developed than Gerald’s raw game. Why should he manage to make a mark in Dallas? Every team Gerald has played for has praised him, meaning the kid has the right kind of attitude. Dallas will provide him a pressure-free environment as they are only looking for him to bring his athletic game every night. It’s put up or shut up time for this preps to pros star hopeful.

3. Andrew Bynum (Los Angeles Lakers): Bynum was having a breakout party last season before an injury ended it. The real question is, will he come back 100%? My guess is that he will manage to be just as effective as he was in the early stages of last season. With Pau Gasol now helping him out in the low post Andrew could find it even easier to make a mark than ever before. He is under some pressure though, as a Lakers title really depends on whether he can contribute and stay healthy.

4. Randy Foye (Minnesota Timberwolves): The Wolves still believe that Foye is the answer to their prayers at the point. His preseason performance once again has us wondering. It is obvious that Foye has great instincts and can play the penetrate and kick-it-out game, but he is a combo guard leaning more towards being a shooter than a passer. Still with a great passing duo in the low post (Kevin Love and Al Jefferson), a great three-point bomber by his side (Mike Miller), Foye’s point and assist totals are a cinch to go up.

5. Marvin Williams (Atlanta Hawks): Right off the bat I have to admit I do not think Marvin will ever live up to the expectations that his No.1 draft status brought. If he were a 5-10 lottery pick everybody would be talking about how great this Hawks pick was and how much Marvin has improved. He will improve this season once again, and this time around we might take notice. With top sixth man Josh Childress in Europe, Williams is going to be expected to step up his game and reach that next level. He is actually a player who can be used at multiple positions and his talent level is absurd.

6. Darko Milicic (Memphis Grizzlies): Every year at the start of the season Darko fans gather round and start saying: “This is going to be the year when Milicic finally delivers.” Darko is primed to get a lot of minutes this time around. Simply put, the Grizzlies do not have enough able bodies down low, so Milicic will see a sharp rise of his PT. This will not mean that Darko finally starts averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds, but you can expect 10-11 points, maybe 8 rebounds and 1-2 blocks per game. Hey, for DM that would already constitute a breakout season.

7. Luke Ridnour (Milwaukee Bucks): Young master Luke has had previous mini breakouts. One of those has actually gotten him an invite to the Olympic tryouts. Alas, Ridnour lacks any sense of defense. His rendition of a defensive stop requires that he uses a hammer and nails. Yet on the other end of the court Luke is a masterful point guard. He is quick enough to deceive opponents, passes well enough to break down a defense and he understands the game enough to climb into the upper half of NBA point-men. Ridnour will have a breakout year because he has been given weapons he can surely use wisely, namely the three-point shooting of Michael Redd and the fast break athleticism of Richard Jefferson. Too bad Mike D’Antoni is not the Bucks’ coach, then that lack of defense would not matter.

8. Thabo Sefolosha (Chicago Bulls): This will either be a disastrous season for Sefolosha or it will be his best ever. Thabo has shown during the preseason that he is ready to bust out. Problem is, the Bulls are loaded at both guard spots. Someone will have to be shipped from the clut at the position. Still, it is imaginable that Sefolosha gets stuck behind too many guys once again and will not get a decent opportunity to display his skills. He really is an asset as a 6’7” player who can play the point, shooting guard and small forward positions.

9. Jeff Green (Oklahoma City Thunder): Green had a solid albeit average rookie season. Not exactly what the then Supersonics were expecting from their top-five pick. Green will receive some tutoring from journeyman Desmond Mason this season and the decrease of pressure plus the certainty of this place being home finally should help him improve immensely. Green is a great complementary player and the Thunder still hope he can develop into the Scottie Pippen of Kevin Durant’s developing Jordan.

10. Renaldo Balkman (Denver Nuggets): Balkman will never have gaudy stats. He will never be mentioned amongst the elite. He will never average 20 points per game. It is not his style. What this guy does well is hustle and play in-your-face defense - two things the Denver Nuggets badly need. Too bad they got rid of Marcus Camby because the Camby-Balkman inside-outside defensive duo combined with the scoring of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony would have been a wild experience to see.

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