Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars: What to watch for Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 21: Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball in the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Billsat Lucas Oil Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Second-half push? We’re about to find out whether this season is simply about getting things headed in the right direction, or something more. The eye test tells us the franchise is making the necessary strides. There are key veterans in place on offense – Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron – and the 2018 draft has reinforced the roster with Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, Tyquan Lewis, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Matthew Franklin and Zaire Franklin.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

November is all about determining whether the Colts will be jockeying for a lofty spot in the 2019 draft, or actually contending for a playoff spot. Early losses to the Bengals, Eagles and Texans probably rule out a possible AFC South title, but there’s no reason a strong second-half push can’t result in serious contention for the second wild-card spot.

Three straight games at Lucas Oil Stadium against middling teams offer the opportunity to accelerate a return to relevance: Jacksonville (3-5), Tennessee (4-4), Miami (5-4). The only teams with a winning record over the final eight games are the Dolphins and Houston (6-3). Over the second half of the season, the Colts face offenses ranked tied-29th (the Jaguars and Titans), 27th (the Giants), 26th (Dallas), 24th (Miami) and tied-14th (Houston).

That’s opportunity knocking. It’s up to the Colts to answer.

Keep it going: We’re going to go out on a limb and predict a pair of streaks will end Sunday. The offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack in three straight games and Luck has attempted a career-best 156 passes without being sacked. Again, we expect Jacksonville to get to Luck Sunday. The Jaguars feature disruptive front-seven talent with Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.

“This is definitely one of the better defenses I have ever seen in my 10 years in the NFL,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “They are talented everywhere.”

What’s important, though, is for Luck’s protection to hold up over the course of the game and allow him to operate an offense that’s averaging 34 points and 436 total yards over the last five games, and has piled up 569 rushing yards over the last three.

The Jaguars are 4-1 in their last five meetings with the Colts and that dominance has started up front on defense. There have been 27 sacks, including 10 at the expense of Jacoby Brissett the last time Jacksonville was in town, 30 quarterback pressures and 31 tackles for loss.

Again, Luck is going to be under pressure. But Sirianni, Frank Reich and offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo must have a protection scheme that allows their QB to function at a high level.

Which Bortles? This has got to end, doesn’t it? You know, Blake Bortles shedding his skin and turning into Joe Montana whenever he faces the Colts. The Jaguars flipped the script in their series with Indy with that 51-16 beatdown in Jacksonville in 2015 that snapped the Colts’ NFL-record streak of 16 straight divisional victories. The breakdown of Bortles’ 44 regular-season games starting with that game is truly stunning. In five games against the Colts, he has 9 touchdowns and zero interceptions, has completed 63.8 percent of his passes and compiled a 109.4 passer rating. In the other 39 against the rest of the NFL: 53 TDs, 42 interceptions, a 59.3 completion percentage and 79.4 rating.

Shame on you, Colts.

The overriding key to getting a grip on Bortles is keeping him in the pocket. In his eight career starts against the Colts (4-4 record), he’s rushed or scrambled 32 times for 197 yards. He’s never rushed for more than 36 yards against Indy, but always seems to break containment and do damage with his legs on third down.

“You can’t rush him without any discipline because he will escape the pocket,” said linebacker Darius Leonard.

Dealing with Bortles figures to be a little more difficult Sunday. He’ll have Leonard Fournette in the backfield for the first time in more than a month. The Jags’ 2017 first-round draft pick has been limited to two games, 20 carries and 71 yards by a hamstring injury.

Mack attack: Edgerrin James. Eric Dickerson. Lydell Mitchell. Marlon Mack?

The Colts’ second-year running back is on the verge of joining that trio as the only players in team history to rush for at least 100 yards in three straight games. James was the last to do it in 2004. Mack heads into Sunday’s game with a full head of steam after posting his first career 100-yard games against the Bills (126) and Raiders (129).

Reich and Sirianni have stressed the importance of Luck directing a balanced offense, and that’s been the case recently. Since throwing 121 passes in losses to Houston and New England, Luck has averaged a more reasonable 32 the last three games. During the recent three-game stretch, the Colts have actually run more (100 attempts) than they’ve passed (97). They’ve generated 696 yards through the air, 569 on the ground.

Credit Mack and the run game.

“The running game creates balance,” Luck said. “I don’t want to say you want to force the issue, but you’ve got to also create your own balance and running the ball and running the ball well definitely helps.”

Jacksonville brings the NFL’s No. 2-ranked defense to town, but it has been vulnerable to the run. The Jags rank 24th in rushing yards per game allowed (123.3) and 14th in yards per attempt (4.2). They’ve already given up 100-yard games to the Giants’ Saquon Barkley (106), Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott (106) and Houston’s Lamar Miller (100).

And the winner is: Colts 24, Jaguars 17. We’re not betting the farm on this one because we don’t trust the Colts’ defense. We’re betting on Luck out-performing Bortles. Despite Jacksonville seizing control of the series, the Colts are 6-2 against the Jags with Luck under center. He’s averaged 282 yards with 14 TDs and five interceptions despite being sacked 22 times.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51