Colts Win....And The Debate Begins

The road to the AFC Championship goes through Indianapolis. The Colts made that official today with a 26-18 win over the Jaguars that not only made the Colts the champions of the AFC South, but also gave them home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

For the Indianapolis Colts, the first three quarters of play in Jacksonville was just another day at the office. The offense methodically put 23 points on the scoreboard while the defense held Jacksonville to a meager field goal. 

How lopsided was this contest really? Well, through the first half, Peyton Manning threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns. The defense held running back Fred Taylor to two yards per carry and a total of 16 yards. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne pulled in 8 balls for a combined 191 yards, including 9-yard and 65-yard touchdown passes to Harrison. By comparison, Jacksonville's top receiver, Jimmy Smith, was held to 41 yards while quarterback David Garrard threw for a total of 98. The Colts forced two fumbles in the first half, both by linebacker David Thornton, including one that was recovered by Montae Reagor. And they forced the Jaguars to punt 4 times.

It was so bad that even when the Jaguars got excellent field position at the Colts 26-yard line following a punt, they had to settle for a Josh Scobee 27-yard field goal a few plays later. Jacksonville had just 138 net yards and 3 points at halftime. They even allowed the Colts to move the ball with 54 seconds left in the half so that Mike Vanderjagt could push a 40-yard field goal through to give the Colts a 17-3 halftime lead.

But in the second half, the game began to slow down for the Colts. Content to work the clock since the Jaguars weren't showing any signs of life on offense, the Colts settled for two more field goals in the third quarter while chewing up roughly 12 minutes of the period. Even when the Jaguars had the ball, they sputtered with a 3-and-out, and again when Brady fumbled for the third time in the game. Raheem Brock was credited with popping the ball out that was recovered by safety Bob Sanders.

The Colts started the fourth quarter with short possession that added yet another Vanderjagt field goal, this time from 46-yards out, that appeared to put the Colts firmly in control of the game, 26-3. The defense further solidified that notion when they denied Garrard a touchdown as Robert Mathis forced a fumble at the Indy 3-yard line that was recovered by Jason David.

A few plays later, the Colts had to punt with 6:54 remaining. And suddenly, the game was on in Jacksonville.

Primarily working out of the shotgun, Garrard engineered a 7-play drive that included a 31-yard pass to Smith and four rushing plays, including a 5-yarder that he took into the end zone on a 4th-and-1. 

Trailing 26-10 with 4:08 left in the game, the inevitable onside kick was next. Josh Scobee nailed Justin Snow with the ball. It appeared Snow never even saw it as it caromed off of him and bounced through many of the oncoming Jaguars defenders. Rashean Mathis fell on the ball for Jacksonville back at their own 29-yard line.

Garrard went to work out of the shotgun again and took advantage of a Colts defense perfectly willing to let him chip away at them as long as they kept the ball in front of them. With 71 yards of distance at their backs, it appeared to be a sound strategy to let the clock tick away.

Although the defense succeeded in keeping the Jaguars' ball carriers from getting out of bounds and stopping the clock on all but two plays, Garrard completed three passes each to Ernest Wilford and Jimmy Smith, including a 1-yard toss to Smith for a touchdown right after the two-minute warning. He looped a pass over the head of cornerback Jason David right into his receiver's hands. Garrard then tacked on 2 points with another run up the middle to keep the Jaguars' hopes alive with the scoreboard reading 26-18.

Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio then made the decision that will be questioned all week. With all three of his timeouts in his hip pocket, he had Josh Scobee kick the ball deep, evidently believing that his defense could stop Peyton Manning and the Colts offense.

He was wrong.

With 1:54 remaining, the Colts forced Jacksonville to burn their first two timeouts following runs by Edgerrin James. The Colts then lined up with Harrison and Wayne wide and Brandon Stokely in the slot. And on 3rd-and-7, Manning dropped back and found the man the Jaguars didn't account for -- tight end Dallas Clark who lined up next to the offensive tackle in what appeared to be an effort to bolster pass protection. Clark slipped through, found the open spot 12 yards from the line of scrimmage and clenched it with both hands, sealing the AFC South Division title, a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Colts.

The Jaguars fall to a very respectable 9-4 with the loss. With three games remaining and a very easy schedule, they will keep a close eye on the Steelers, Chargers, and Chiefs as their only serious challengers to a wildcard berth. Barring a total meltdown, they should primarily be playing for their seed position. The Jaguars host the 49ers next weekend.

For the Colts, the grand debate now comes to the forefront for the organization. At 13-0, the Colts have already locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs with three weeks to go. Head coach Tony Dungy, President Bill Polian and team owner Jim Irsay will have a touch choice ahead.

How much do they play their starters, risking possible injury? Do they ignore the extremely rare opportunity to be the first team to complete a regular season and perhaps even their postseason undefeated since the 1972 Dolphins? Do they focus on increasing the odds of a postseason with a fully healthy roster of players? Do they risk getting their starters out of sync by resting them too much prior to their run for the Super Bowl title?

Earlier this week, Dungy alluded to the fact that he won't need to ask the players for their input, mentioning that he knows that his players simply want to continue to play. Not necessarily because of the chance to make history, but due to the fact that they simply want to play. Period.

Until he decides, expect the topic to be hotly debated from San Francisco to New York City. In the newspapers and online. And even at water coolers at work and at home amongst family members at the dinner table.

Only thing one thing is for certain. No matter what the Colts decide, either decision could end up being right. Or wrong.

So before we witness the maelstrom of commentary rolling out across the nation this week, I say let the players play. It's what they do. And they deserve a chance to make history. After all, when will they, or this franchise get another opportunity to do that?

Perhaps not in their lifetime. Or ours.

The time is now.

Go for it. Seize it. And relish the splendor of it.

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