INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 12, 2015) – Four areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Jaguars in Jacksonville’s Everbank Field: (CBS4, 1 p.m.):
December push: Who would have thought the Colts’ season would start Sunday, in Jacksonville no less? But that’s the harsh reality. After the uncertainty with coach Chuck Pagano’s future with the organization, the preseason hype, the speculated rift between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson and the slew of major injuries (Andrew Luck, Anthony Castonzo, Ahmad Bradshaw, Art Jones, etc.), the Colts still are in position to accomplish their No. 1 objective.
And that would be to win the AFC South and secure a fourth straight postseason berth. They head into Week 14 tied for the division lead at 6-6 with the Houston Texans, but firmly in control of everything ahead. First comes Sunday afternoon at Jacksonville, followed by Houston’s Dec. 20 visit to Lucas Oil Stadium.
Consider a scenario that’s hardly far-fetched. If the Colts beat the Jaguars and Houston loses Sunday night at home to New England, Indy clinches its third consecutive AFC South title by sweeping the season series with the Texans.
So buckle up.
“We can look at it like it’s playoff time now, starting this week with Jacksonville,’’ running back Frank Gore said. “We win, we keep going. We don’t, we keep putting pressure on ourselves and make it harder on ourselves. We all should have the mentality that playoff time is now.’’
Divisional dominance: The Colts pulled out of their season-opening funk – remember 0-2? – by returning to the AFC South and taking care of business in consecutive games against the Titans, Jaguars and Texans. Their streak of 16 consecutive victories against divisional opposition is an NFL record. Speaking of streaks, they’ve won six straight against the Jaguars and are 13-0 against the Texans in Indy.
But before we casually hand the Colts a third straight AFC South banner, let’s not forget Jacksonville finally appears to be getting its act together and Houston had won four straight before fading late last Sunday at Buffalo. The Jaguars already are assured an eighth straight non-winning season, but it’s clear they’re on the right track with coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell.
Lest any Colts fan considers Sunday’s trip to Jacksonville a mere formality, let’s remember how the first meeting unfolded Oct. 4 in Indy. The Colts escaped with a 16-13 overtime decision in large part because the Jaguars refused to win it. Place-kicker Jason Myers missed a pair of game-winning field goal attempts – a 53-yarder with 5 seconds to play in regulation and a 48-yarder in overtime. The Jaguars out-gained the Colts in total yards 431-326, but were penalized 13 times for 92 yards, and five of the penalties resulted in Colts’ first downs.
Big-play concerns: Sunday represents one of those strength vs. weakness confrontations. Few teams are better at stretching the field in the passing game than the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars. No team has been more vulnerable to the big plays than the Colts.
“We’re going to have our hands full,’’ conceded nickel cornerback Darius Butler.
The Jaguars’ have piled up 30 completions of at least 25 yards, tied for third-most in the league. The Colts’ secondary has allowed a league-high 34 passes that have coverage at least 25 yards, including 10 that have picked up at least 40. Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis has been inconsistent and yielded seven TDs. Greg Toler has been routinely victimized, but will miss the game with a knee injury. Either rookie D’Joun Smith or recently-signed Jalil Brown will step in.
The problem with dealing with the Jaguars is Bortles’ options. Each has game-breaking skills. Allen Robinson leads the NFL with 24 receptions of 20-plus yards, and has five that have gained at least 40 yards. He’s averaging a robust 16.6 yards on his team-high 65 catches. Sidekick Allen Hurns, back after missing one game with a concussion, is averaging 15.8 yards on his 48 receptions. In the first meeting in Indy, Hurns had 11 catches for 116 yards and one TD while Robinson added four catches and 80 yards.
Also, let’s not forget tight end Julius Thomas. He missed the first meeting with a broken hand, but has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last three games.
Re-establish Hilton, Moncrief: While Bortles undoubtedly will take his shots against the Colts’ No. 30-ranked pass defense, it would be nice if Matt Hasselbeck occasionally tested a Jacksonville pass defense that has been equally ineffective. It ranks No. 26 in yards allowed (264.6) and has allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a 101.3 passer rating. The Jaguars have given up 24 passing TDs while managing just six interceptions.
The Colts are coming off their worst offensive game of the season – 240 total yards, 186 yards, 11 first downs, all season lows – and most disturbing was offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s inability to get leading receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief involved. They combined for four catches and 69 yards while being targeted just six times.
While Hasselbeck operates more of a West Coast-style offense that features a shorter, rhythmic passing attack, he needs to occasionally look deep. Until the Colts open things up, Frank Gore is going to have trouble being productive in the running game. He’s been limited to 103 yards on 46 carries the last three games. Teams are stacking the line and will continue to do so until given a reason to honor the deep passing game.
Prediction: Colts 27, Jaguars 24.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.