INDIANAPOLIS - Kerry Collins waited all season to prove his value in Tennessee. The Titans wouldn't have been celebrating last night without him.
Collins rescued his teammates in the most precarious circumstances, leading them to three straight second-half field goals in relief of injured Vince Young and helping Tennessee rally for a 16-10 win at Indianapolis that drew cheers from Nashville and moans from Cleveland.
"Now that I'm older and have been around for a while, I appreciate these things more," said Collins, who turned 35 yesterday. "I told the younger guys to savor it. In my second year, we went to the NFC Championship game. I thought we would be going every year, but that didn't happen."
The final piece of the AFC playoff picture came down to the final game on the final weekend of the regular season. Tennessee had to win to make the postseason for the first time since 2003, while an Indianapolis win would have sent the Browns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Inside the RCA Dome, you could almost hear the groans coming from the shores of Lake Erie when Peyton Manning traded his helmet for a headset early in the second quarter. To the Browns' chagrin, that was how the Colts chose to play.
While Tennessee welcomed the transition from Manning to Jim Sorgi, the Titans were forced into making one of their own when Young flopped down midway through the third quarter with an apparent right quadriceps injury. Young said he hurt it in the first half, then was reinjured in the third quarter.
Enter Collins, who had thrown 69 passes all season and had barely moved off the sideline since Oct. 21. The veteran backup was efficient, not flashy.
He finished the drive Young started by setting up Rob Bironas for a 40-yard field goal to tie the score, then led the Titans (10-6) on a 58-yard scoring march that gave Bironas a 54-yard attempt.
Bironas, who had beaten the Colts last December in Nashville with a 60-yarder, curled the kick perfectly inside the right goal post to give Tennessee a 13-10 lead and then sealed it with a 33-yard field goal with 2:56 to go.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he would wait until midweek to decide which quarterback plays Sunday at San Diego.
But Collins provided enough against the Colts' backups to end the Titans' playoff drought.
While Colts coach Tony Dungy treated the game as a playoff tuneup, he expected more.
"It was disappointing in a lot of ways," Dungy said. "We really wanted to get that 14th win. We got a lot of things done, we just didn't quite get the score the way we wanted it."
The game plan was simply to let the offense get a little work, the defense to show it could hold up against a mobile quarterback like Young, and a few players to hit personal milestones.
It didn't take long to accomplish all three. Manning finished 14 of 16 for 95 yards, to go over 4,000 yards and Reggie Wayne caught 12 passes for 87 yards, giving him 104 receptions and a league-high 1,510 yards, 17 more than the Patriots' Randy Moss.
Dungy hugged Wayne when he finally left the field.
"Reggie's just going to be featured in this offense," Manning said. "It wasn't necessarily anything intentional. With [Anthony] Gonzalez out and Marvin [Harrison] still not playing, Devin [Aromashodu] making his first start, obviously you're going to look to Reggie Wayne. It's just kind of the way it worked out."
Without their usual offensive stars, the Colts weren't themselves as they lost at home for the first time in 11 games to an AFC South opponent.
Adam Vinatieri made a 37-yard field goal early in the second quarter, and Sorgi threw a 3-yard TD pass to Craphonso Thorpe after the Colts recovered a fumble at the Tennessee 30.
That was it for Indianapolis, which put five starters, including Harrison, on the inactive list before the game.
Tennessee wasn't much better until Collins entered.
After Chris Brown's 8-yard TD run on the opening drive, Tennessee's offense bogged down and didn't get it going until Collins came in. He finished the first drive and led the Titans to field goals on the next two to series to turn the game - and put Tennessee in the playoffs.
"That's why Kerry is where Kerry is," Fisher said. "He's one play away from playing. He's played an awful lot of ball, being a backup in this league is harder than starting."