INDIANAPOLIS — Dane Cruikshank and Tye Smith teamed up to make a game-changing play Sunday.
It could also turn out to be a season-turning moment for the Tennessee Titans.
Cruikshank raced through an inside gap to block a potential tiebreaking field goal late in the fourth quarter, and Smith returned it 63 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to send the Titans past the Indianapolis Colts for a 31-17 win.
"It's huge," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said after improving to 5-1 since replacing Marcus Mariota as the starter. "A division game on the road, it was a huge game for us."
The ramifications go far deeper than just another win, though.
By snapping a three-game losing streak in the series, Tennessee (7-5) moved one game in front of Indianapolis (6-6) in the AFC South standings, evened the season series and dealt the Colts their second division loss, the same number as the Titans. All of those could factor into tiebreaking scenarios at the end of the regular season.
By beating a foe that had won 14 of the previous 16 in the series and eliminated the Titans from playoff contention in Nashville last year, the Titans should get a major confidence boost, too.
The way they won might be the most encouraging sign of all, though.
"It's almost looking like a weapon for us," coach Mike Vrabel said when about his field-goal defense. "We blocked two and forced another miss. They're excited. They know if everyone does their job, we have a chance to get one. Every week we look for ways to go affect the kick, and it really comes down to effort."
The Titans have now blocked three kicks in three weeks and forced three more turnovers Sunday to help them score the final 24 points.
It was a big day personally for Chattanooga native Kareem Orr, who appeared in an official NFL game for the first time and made eight tackles from his cornerback spot. A former Notre Dame High School and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout, Orr signed as an undrated free agent this past May after a rookie camp tryout and has been part of the Titans' practice squad most of the season, although this was not the first time he was on the active roster for a regular-season game.
Derrick Henry had 26 carries for 149 yards as the Colts' streak of 29 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher came to an end, and he became the first Tennessee running back to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons since Chris Johnson (2012-13).
Henry scored on a 13-yard touchdown run on fourth down to cut the deficit to 17-14 with less than six minutes to play in the third quarter. Tannehill wound up 17-of-22 passing for 182 yards with two touchdowns, sealing the victory with a 40-yard scoring strike to Kalif Raymond with 3:02 to go, exactly two minutes after the big play by Cruikshank and Smith.
"I can't ever see what's going on; I'm looking down at the ball. Whenever you hear 'pop-pop,' that's never a good sign," Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri said of the block. "I felt like my timing and get-off time was good and all that stuff, so I don't think that was the issue necessarily, but we'll watch the film and figure it out."
Colts coach Frank Reich didn't need much time to dissect what went wrong.
"He got between the wing and our end," Colts coach Frank Reich said of Cruikshank. "He should not get there."
The replay clearly showed Cruikshank getting almost directly in front of Vinatieri, who never had a chance. Smith then alertly scooped up the ball and nobody — not even Vinatieri, the man who once tackled Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff but turns 47 this month — could chase down the Titans cornerback.
Smith insisted afterward it was all by design: "We had it in the plan we could get it, and we got to it. I was at ball level to catch it and run with it."
While Vrabel was happy to celebrate a win for the third straight game, he knows the final quarter of the regular season — including two division contests, both against the Houston Texans — will determine whether the Titans are playing in January.
"Momentum doesn't go from Sunday to Sunday," Vrabel said. "Momentum builds throughout the week and it's something that can carry over, and I think it has. It's fun watching those guys play."
It hasn't been much fun lately for the Colts, who have lost four of their past five games to fall from first in the division to third. They hit the road for three of their final four games, and their injury-depleted offense is finding points increasingly scarce. Indianapolis started the game without star receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf), tight end Eric Ebron (ankle) and starting running back Marlon Mack (hand), and receiver Chester Rogers (knee) was lost on the Colts' first possession.
Jacoby Brissett was 25-of-40 for 319 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and the quarterback couldn't generate any points over the final 25 minutes. This time, though, it wasn't just the offense that disappointed.
Vinatieri, the NFL's career scoring leader, came up empty on three field-goal attempts Sunday — his 55-yard try was wide right in the first half and 53-yard attempt fluttered down the field after Austin Johnson's deflection — and he has missed 14 kicks (eight field-goal attempts and six PATs) in all this year.
The Colts' Zach Pascal caught seven passes for 109 yards and Jack Doyle had six for 73, including a 21-yard touchdown catch. Nyheim Hines scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter.
The Titans allowed five sacks in the first half but only one in the second.
Tennessee cornerback Adoree' Jackson left in the first half with a knee injury and returned briefly before leaving a second time but did not play in the second half. Linebacker Daren Bates (shoulder) also left in the first half.