What to watch for: It’s time for Colts to start stacking wins
LONDON – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday in London’s Wembley Stadium:
Kickoff: 9:30 a.m.
Stacking the wins: The Colts sidestepped the NFL’s version of Armageddon with their beat-the-clock victory over the San Diego Chargers. Had they fallen to 0-3, panic would have permeated the fan base and probably had owner Jim Irsay second-guessing his January decision to retain Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano.
Now, they have a chance to make something of the season, but only if they plop win No. 2 on top of win No. 1. That starts Sunday in Wembley Stadium. The Colts are entering a stretch conducive to stacking wins – Pagano’s phrase – providing their defense continues to play at a winning level and the Andrew Luck-led offense avoids the debilitating mistakes.
After dealing with the Jaguars, they return home against the Chicago Bears, visit AFC South rivals Houston and Tennessee on consecutive weekends and entertain Kansas City Oct. 30. Winning four out of the next five would set the Colts up nicely for what appears to be a much tougher second half of the season.
But first things first.
Remembering Dec. 13: And that would be the Jaguars. And that would involve extracting some serious payback for that serious beat-down 10 months ago in Jacksonville.
“Yeah, I remember,’’ Robert Mathis said, wagging his head back and forth. “You don’t forget when somebody drops 50 on you.’’
Well, 51 to be exact.
It’s hard to remember the Colts led 13-3 late in the second quarter and were poised to pad their lead. A second straight Blake Bortles’ lost fumble gave Indy possession at the Jacksonville 34 with 1 minute, 11 seconds remaining in the first half. Then came one of the most incredible reversals imaginable. Andre Branch offered the trifecta at the expense of Matt Hasselbeck – a sack and forced fumble Branch returned 49 yards for a touchdown – to narrow Indy’s lead to 13-9 at the half.
It was all Jaguars after the break. Their offense scored TDs on all five possessions and their special teams added Rashad Greene’s 73-yard punt return. Some Colts fans took exception when the Jaguars breached the 50-point barrier with 1:57 remaining on Bortles’ 1-yard run on fourth-and-1, and it seemed clear at the time Jacksonville didn’t mind running it up.
“They beat our butts good,’’ Pagano said. “They embarrassed us . . . they haven’t forgotten and we haven’t either.’’
The lopsided loss snapped the Colts’ 16-game winning streak against AFC South opposition, an NFL record. It also halted their six-game dominance of the Jaguars.
It’s time to start another streak.
Line dance: The game could well hinge on the well-being of the Colts’ offensive line. Right tackle Joe Reitz and right guard Denzelle Good are questionable with back injuries. Interior backup Jon Harrison is out after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. We question whether Reitz will even be active after the team signed Jeremy Vujnovich to the active roster from the practice squad.
If Reitz is out, rookie Joe Haeg might make second NFL start and first at right tackle. He started at right guard last week against the Chargers before Reitz aggravated a back issue.
The makeup of the line is noteworthy. The uncertainty of Reitz and Good might result in the Colts having eight active against the Jaguars instead of the normal seven, and the group might include four rookies – Ryan Kelly, Haeg, Austin Blythe and Le’Raven Clark – and Vujnovich, who has yet to appear in a regular-season game.
Jacksonville has yet to live up to the hype created by its wild offseason spending spree, but has loads of talent on defense. Outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, has two sacks in three games after missing his rookie season with a knee injury. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the fifth overall pick in April, adds playmaking ability to the secondary. Among the heftiest offseason acquisitions was tackle Malik Jackson, a cornerstone of Super Bowl champion Denver’s No. 1-ranked defense. Inside linebackers Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith are tackle machines.
Bottling up Bortles: The Jaguars have surrounded Bortles with solid skill players. Wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark a year ago while combining for 144 receptions, 2,431 yards and 24 touchdowns. Although the running game has gotten off to a slow start – the Jaguars ranks 31st in yards per game (55.0) and yards per attempt (2.8) – it offers T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and Denard Robinson. Tight end Julius Thomas has 11 receptions, 148 yards and a TD in three games.
But none of that matters unless Bortles cleans up his act. He’s 12th in the NFL with 843 yards and tied for eighth with five TDs, but is tied for 30th with six interceptions and his 75.0 rating ranks 28th. He’s been great at piling up gaudy stats for a losing franchise. He’s got to prove he can lift the franchise with cleaner performances.
Shoddy pass protection has been an issue. Bortles has been sacked nine times. The only teams to allow more are Cincinnati (12), Carolina (12) and Cleveland (10).
And the winner is: Colts 24, Jaguars 17. Pagano has stressed this is a business trip, and hopefully his players have been paying attention. As we mentioned, if the Colts are to make anything out of this season, they must take care of business over the next month.