Colts-Jaguars Preview: Another Close One?

Colts take 16-game AFC South Division winning streak to Jacksonville, where Jaguars have improved dramatically on offense.

The Indianapolis Colts are still the same inconsistent team that was extremely fortunate to overcome the Jacksonville Jaguars in overtime on Oct. 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

A rollercoaster ride of a season finds the Colts 6-6 and tied with Houston for the AFC South Division lead entering Sunday’s road test in the Sunshine State.

The Jaguars are 4-8 and have found ways to lose, which is consistent with their recent history including that 16-13 overtime loss in Indianapolis two months ago, when kicker Jason Myers missed field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime that would have delivered victory.

The Colts have defeated the Jaguars five times in their league-record AFC South Division win streak of 16 games that began in 2012. The average margin of victory has been 20.8 points, and the Jaguars have scored just 9.2 points per game.

But as Colts inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson concedes, “This definitely isn’t the old Jaguars that this organization has been used to.”

Expect Sunday to be different because the Jaguars are scoring. They’re putting up more points per game than the Colts, 22.9 per game to 21.6. 

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has set a single-season franchise record with 27 touchdown passes. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is the Jags’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005. Wide receiver Allen Hurns has caught a touchdown pass in seven games, including against the Colts. The pass catchers have 18 TDs combined, the second-best scoring duo in the league.

Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon leads AFC rookie rushers with 678 yards, although the team has a league-low two rushing scores. 

Tight end Julius Thomas has scored in each of the past three games. Colts fans might remember him from his days in Denver, when he caught three touchdowns passes from Peyton Manning against the Colts in the 2014 season opener. Thomas was injured and didn’t play against the Colts in October.

Meanwhile, the Colts have continually lost key players to injury and won their share of close games with backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to stay in the hunt for a fourth consecutive playoff berth. Then a 45-10 loss Sunday night at Pittsburgh magnified the team’s weaknesses, most notably in the trenches, where the Colts have struggled to rush the passer and protect their own, be it the injured Andrew Luck or Hasselbeck.

“You look at those plays that you can learn from and then of course you probably just burn the rest of the film,” cornerback Vontae Davis said with a modest chuckle.

Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who leads the team with four sacks but hasn’t had one in four games, rationalizes that’s the nature of the NFL.

“We’ve been knocked down six times, got to get up a seventh, eighth, even a ninth time,” the franchise sack leader said Friday. “That’s the mark of a competitor. If you want to be a champion, that’s what it’s going to take. You are not going to be the only one. You’re not the first nor the last to be knocked down, so get up.”

Problem is, some have yet to get up and play again. Aside from Luck still being a week or two away in recovering from a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle, the Colts will be without offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo (knee), inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (hamstring) and likely outside linebacker Erik Walden, who is doubtful with a heel issue that has nagged him for three weeks.

The Colts O-line allowed five sacks against the Steelers to boost the season total to 28. On the other side, the Colts have just 19 sacks and rank 29th in sacks per pass play.

What qualifies as good news is starting offensive right guard Hugh Thornton should be back after missing one game with an elbow injury. Rookie wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, who suffered a fractured fibula that cost him five games, is also set to return, which gives Hasselbeck another speedy option.

But the Colts might have to contend with the Jaguars’ pass-catching Allens without cornerback Greg Toler, who admittedly has struggled and given fans reason to question if there’s anyone else on the roster who can do better. He’s questionable with a knee issue. He didn’t practice Thursday and was limited Wednesday and Friday. If Toler can’t play, the Colts will turn to either rookie D'Joun Smith or Jalil Brown, who was re-signed this week.

Special-teams captain Colt Anderson is also questionable with an ankle injury. He didn’t practice all week.

Meanwhile, Bortles has had at least two touchdown passes in seven of the past eight games. Bortles has 15 of the team’s 19 turnovers with 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles. Again, outcomes are often determined by if this team can avoid self-inflicted mistakes. But the Colts lead the league with 25 give-aways. The Jaguars lost to the Colts last time despite being plus-two in turnover ratio.

The Colts have struggled to run the ball with Frank Gore, who has averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the last five games. In the previous Jaguars game, Gore ran 17 times for 53 yards (3.1 yards per carry) with a lost fumble in the red zone. And lest anyone forget, the Colts haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 52 games including the playoffs.

So if the division winning streak is still going to be intact after Sunday, the onus is likely on Hasselbeck and his receivers, T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief, among others. Moncrief had only one catch on the only pass he was targeted last game. That’s his lowest target total in 18 games and an unacceptable lack of utilizing an emerging second-year pro who had the team lead in receptions for the season just two games ago.

The Colts have had to use the tight ends so much to help blocking, their numbers have been minimal. Dwayne Allen, who had eight TDs last season, has just 13 catches in 19 targets with one score this season.

But when Hasselbeck finds his top two pass catchers, the offense can make up for a lot of flaws, be it a minus-6 turnover ratio, 27th-ranked rushing offense or 30th-ranked defense.

“They’re really good against the run on first and second down,” said the 17th-year passer, whose 4-1 record as Luck’s fill-in began against the Jaguars that previous meeting. “There’s an opportunity for you to be in third-and-long situations, which is never good. They run a ton of line stunts. They don’t necessarily blitz a lot, but when they do, they’re sound, they’re effective and they’re good at it. They’re able to get a rush with four, which I think is the dream of any defensive coordinator to be able to get home with four pass rushers.”

The Colts might be curious to know how the Texans are faring in a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Colts and Texans meet next Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in what could decide the division crown.

But the 40-year-old sage of a Colts quarterback warns against thinking about anything other than these Jaguars.

“There’s enough to worry about with this team,” Hasselbeck said. “They’re playing good football. They’re playing a lot better. They’re scoring a ton of points. We know how close this game was last time. There is no reason to be thinking about anything besides this game this week.”

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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