Colts at Jaguars: What to watch for Sunday

Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass in the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fourth quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Jaguars in Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field.

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

New-look Jags:

What a difference three weeks make. The ramifications of Jacksonville’s continued death spiral – seven straight losses and counting – include the benching of Blake Bortles for Cody Kessler; star running back Leonard Fournette losing his cool in last week’s loss at Buffalo, getting into a fight and being suspended for Sunday’s game; and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett being fired and quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich assuming play-calling duties.

Don’t go away, there’s more. Left guard Andrew Norwell, the pricey offseason free-agent acquisition, was placed on the injured reserve list this week with an ankle injury and top cornerback Jalen Ramsey is questionable after missing the bulk of practice this week with a knee injury. Norwell’s situation is the latest to ravage the offensive line that has given up 31 sacks.

Clearly, the Jaguars bunch the Colts outlasted 29-26 Nov. 11 in Indy isn’t the same one they’ll face at TIAA Bank Field. The most dramatic difference: Kessler for Bortles.

“I have been in the situation before on the other side where we have had a quarterback change for whether it be by injury or you are just changing,’’ Frank Reich said. “In my experiences, it’s not quite as big of a deal as everyone thinks. It’s usually not as big a systematic change as people might think.

“You nuance a couple of things, you shift a couple things, but mostly you are running your system.’’

Milanovich, he added, probably will bring “his own rhythm and his own emphasis.’’

The move to Kessler:

There’s no better indication of the Jaguars’ patience running out with Bortles than the timing of his benching. Regardless his struggles, Bortles has been at his absolute best against the Colts. In nine games, he’s averaged 264.9 yards with 14 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 97.9 passer rating. Last month, he completed 26-of-38 passes for 320 yards with two TDs and a 111.7 passer rating, his third straight rating of at least 100 versus the Colts.

Yet in his last two games – losses to Pittsburgh and Buffalo – Bortles’ numbers and effectiveness plummeted: 22-of-41, 231 yards, one TD, two interceptions, a 58.1 passer rating.

“We feel like at the end of the day we’ve got to get better production out of our passing game,’’ coach Doug Marrone said of the move. “It’s not just the one game (the 24-21 loss at Buffalo). It’s something I’ve been thinking about.’’

Bortles didn’t agree with the decision, but admitted, “I put myself in this position. I didn’t play good enough. I didn’t win football games. I couldn’t find a way to get it done.’’

Can Kessler? The 2016 third-round draft pick of Cleveland is 0-8 as a starter, with all of the starts coming as a rookie. His only playing time with the Jaguars came in a week 7 20-7 home loss to Houston. He replaced Bortles and completed 21-of-30 passes for just 156 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

“As a competitor, I am excited,’’ Kessler said. “Getting these guys to really play for me is something that I really want to prove this week and show them I am ready to go.

“I want to go out there and ball and just have some fun.’’

Conversely, it’s up to the Colts to limit Kessler’s fun. Look for the Jaguars to ease Kessler’s responsibilities by leaning on running backs Carlos Hyde and T.J. Yeldon. When it comes time for Kessler to make a play in the passing game, it’ll undoubtedly involved quicker drops and shorter throws. The Colts must make him uncomfortable and force him into mistakes.

The Colts and Cleveland are the only teams to force at least one turnover in each game this season.

Fast start:

Quick starts are the objective every week, but could be more impactful for the Colts Sunday. What we’re interested to discover: how will the Jaguars respond if the Andrew Luck-led offense is able to get out to an early 10-0 or 14-0 lead? Is that when the Shoot, here we go again mindset takes hold? Is that when the hometown crowd decides to turn on the reeling Jaguars?

In the first meeting, the Colts struck early. They led 21-7 early in the second quarter and 29-16 at the half as Luck passed for 217 yards and three TDs in the first two quarters. Jacksonville rallied . . . behind Bortles. The AFC South rivals appeared headed to overtime, at least, until Kenny Moore II forced a fumble by Rashad Greene at the Indy 23 with 1:30 remaining and the Colts clinging to a 3-point lead.

Be efficient on offense:

Luck is in the midst of arguably the best five-game stretch of his career. He’s completing 75.8 percent of his passes with a 129.6 passer rating with 16 TDs and three interceptions. The Colts have averaged 34.6 during their five-game win streak.

The challenge: keep it up. Four of the five wins have come at home, the outlier being the 42-28 win at Oakland. Even though Jacksonville checks in as one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments this season, it still features quality talent on defense.

Take care of the football. Mix in steady doses of the running game – Marlon Mack is expected to play after suffering a concussion last week against Miami – with Luck’s passing. Limit the times Luck is exposed to a formidable Jaguars’ front seven.

And the winner is: Colts 23, Jaguars 13.

This is no time to stumble against a team in serious decline. The Colts need to secure their first six-game winning streak since 2009 to remain a serious contender for an AFC wild-card playoff spot. They’ll enter the day tied with Baltimore at 6-5 for the second wild-card spot, and the Ravens hold the tiebreaker.

Again, take care of business.

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