It would have been easy to become desperate in future opportunities on the field as a result. And it would have been easy for a defense that had to spend more than its fair share of time on the field to become demoralized and weary. But the Indianapolis Colts displayed the tenure and demeanor of a team that just won't come unglued, just won't doubt themselves even when they can't get their star-studded offense on the field. And they emerged from that seemingly desperate situation with their third consecutive win, 21-14, and sole ownership of the AFC South title.
Here are some of my observations from this game...at first glance.
-- It's doubtful that many people thought beyond veteran running back Fred Taylor when considering how the Colts defense would stand up to the Jaguars rushing game this week. But now they know that they should have. Taylor registered a decent day with 74 total yards rushing, but on 21 attempts, that equated to a fairly average 3.5 yards per carry. The back that did the heavy damage was someone even the Colts obviously underestimated -- rookie Maurice Jones-Drew, who had just two rushes and two catches heading into Sunday's title bout in Indianapolis. Despite the confidence he has in his own abilities, it's doubtful that even he would have projected that by the end of the day he would have 103 yards rushing on just 13 carries for a gaudy 7.3 rushing average. He also had four catches for 32 yards and his first NFL touchdown, and a 27.2 kickoff return average which included a fine 42-yard effort that helped set up the Jaguars' fourth-quarter touchdown. Jones-Drew was a load to bring down. He showed the power-running ability and sharp moves that helped make him a star in the collegiate ranks. The Jaguars better start looking at getting the ball in his hands more often the rest of the way.
-- Seemingly drawn to Jones-Drew like a magnet was the Colts' star defensive rookie, safety Antoine Bethea. He slid over to the free safety position with Bob Sanders out with an injured knee and had a terrific game. Bethea finished the game with 12 tackles (8 solo, 4 assists) to lead the Colts. He also put the pressure on Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee in the first half that forced him to miss a chip-shot field goal of just 24 yards off the left upright so the Colts could go into the locker room with a surprising 7-7 tie. Mike Doss was the other starter alongside Bethea, moving into his old spot at strong safety.
-- Dominic Rhodes got off to a horrible start, but finished up stronger. By halftime, he had just 10 yards on 4 runs, and on three of those runs he averaged just one yard per carry. But later in the game he picked it up and started grabbing 4 to 5 yards on some of his runs. He finished with 48 yards on 14 carries (3.4 yards per carry). What was very curious is why the Colts didn't let rookie Joseph Addai pick up where he left off against the Texans. After an impressive 5.1 yards per carry performance last week against the Texans, Indianapolis only gave him the ball three times against the Jaguars. And guess what? He averaged 5.0 yards per carry. It's time to give him the ball, Coach Dungy.
-- For all the pregame talk about the mismatch between the Jaguars big, physical wide receivers versus a smallish Colts secondary, it never materialized. Jacksonville completed just five passes to their wideouts for 40 yards. Big receivers? Big deal.
-- Hunter Smith will probably need some extra recovery time this week. After being called on just three times to punt in the first two games, he had to punt it 7 times (43.3 avg.) in this contest. Ironically, the last time he had to punt seven times in a single game was last September 18th during Week Two action -- the last time the Colts hosted the Jaguars.
-- Peyton Manning finished below 50 percent for completions (14 of 31 for 219 yards), was sacked twice and threw one touchdown pass but still managed to lead the team to a win. The last time Manning was held to less than a 50 percent completion rate was -- yep, you probably guessed it -- September 18th, 2005 in the RCA Dome against the Jaguars when he was 13 of 28 for just 122 yards, 0 TDs and an interception. The Colts won that one by a narrow 10-3 decision.
-- While I hated to see Nick Harper leave the game with a groin injury, Marlin Jackson brought a real physical presence that the Colts benefited from in this matchup. He had seven tackles on the day on defense, and in the third quarter he made two very strong, quick tackles that helped stall the Jaguars. Scobee missed a 49-yard field goal effort just shortly after those plays. And did you see Jackson's special teams tackle on the opening kickoff of the game? That was a beauty.
-- Okay, I didn't like the instant replay call of an incomplete deep pass to Reggie Wayne anymore than you did. But I have to begrudgingly admit that it was likely the right call. But there was no excuse for the zebras keeping their hankies in their pockets a few plays later when Rashean Mathis grabbed Marvin Harrison's jersey, or when there was a clear push in the back on a punt return, or when Mathis got away with another no-call against Harrison with about 10 minutes left in the game on a deep pass when the Colts were at the Jaguars' 23-yard line. Ironically, the only time Mathis got caught was on a play when Harrison caught the pass anyway. Harrison finished the day with 94 yards, just 6 shy of posting his third consecutive 100-yard game this season. But that was still tops amongst Colts receivers. Mathis, who had primary coverage on Harrison throughout the day, was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week last week for his performance against the Steelers on Monday night after picking off two passes in the fourth quarter. I don't think he'll be in the running again this week.
-- I was glad we didn't have to find out if Martin Gramatica could still kick field goals of any decent distance. Hopefully Adam Vinatieri, who was on the inactive list for the game with an injured right groin, will be back for the Jets game next week. Gramatica did a decent job with his kickoffs though, booting them to the 7, the 3, and to the goal line before a miscue in the fourth quarter where he only got it to the 10-yard line, and kicking it low enough that Maurice Jones-Drew was able to grab it on the run and return it to midfield. That was not atypical for Gramatica, who had some erratic performances as a kickoff specialist the last time he was in Indy back in December, 2004. The other Colts who were inactive for this game along with Vinatieri were S Bob Sanders, DT Corey Simon, WR Brandon Stokley, RB Dede Dorsey, LB Tyjuan Hagler, CB Kelvin Hayden, and DE Josh Thomas.
-- Revisiting the poise issue, did you notice that the only two turnovers in this game were surrendered by Byron Leftwich? Jason David and Mike Doss picked him off on a couple of pretty poorly thrown balls, including one with the game on the line where he badly underthrew his receiver. Had he hit his man in stride, the Jaguars would have had the ball around the 10-yard line of Indianapolis with inside of a minute to play.
-- Speaking of Mike Doss, he's been the brunt of some occasional bad comments since missing time with his calf injury this year and apparently losing his starter's role to rookie Antoine Bethea. But he did well out there against the Jaguars. In addition to the game-clinching interception, he stood out on the Jags series following Dallas Clark's touchdown catch in the second half, making really good tackles on a run and then on a short pass to force a punt.
-- Did anyone else get a kick out of Dallas Clark dropping to one knee to make that catch after frantically waving to Peyton Manning to indicate just how wide open he was? Marvin Harrison did a great job of selling his inside route so cornerback Rashean Mathis would bite and come up rather than trailing Clark to the outside. But it was one of those plays where Clark was so wide open, you wondered if he would catch it. He dropped to that knee and cradled the ball like it was his first-born child. Another fine example of ... poise.
-- Anybody else impressed that the Colts were able to win this game with Vinatieri, Stokley, Simon, Sanders, and even Harper out for most of the game? I sure was.
-- Terrence Wilkins didn't do very well on his two kickoff returns, averaging just 15 yards per attempt. But I'll bet people will remember his 82-yard punt return instead. And rightfully so. But don't overlook the nice block Jason David gave him, even if it was against the punter, to spring him loose for the final jaunt for the score.
-- Another lack of poise moment that Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio will undoubtedly point out to offensive lineman Vincent Manuwai is the damage he did to his team with that unnecessary roughness penalty when he shoved Cato June to the ground after the play. It pushed the Jags back 15 yards prior to their punt that Terrence Wilkins returned for a touchdown. Did that really make a difference? Well, considering that Wilkins fielded the punt at the 18, if the punter puts the same juice on the ball, it's dropping inside the 5-yard line and Wilkins likely doesn't touch that ball in hopes that it goes through for a touchback. And the Colts won the game by ... hmmm ... 7 points, wasn't it?
-- The Colts weren't perfect on the issue of penalties in this game, although they also only drew four flags. DT Darrell Reid was fortunate that his roughing the passer penalty occurred on the drive where Scobee hit the upright in the first half. Reggie Wayne's pass interference call potentially cost the team some points though. It negated some nice work by Joseph Addai after catching a pass for an 18-yard gain that would have set the Colts up at the Jacksonville 12-yard line. The Colts ended up punting instead. But Wayne stepped up on the next possession on a key third-down to pull in a 22-yard catch at the 1-yard line setting up the winning score on the Manning naked bootleg. Oh, and wasn't that great fun to watch? The Colts really used the Jaguars' aggressiveness against themselves on that one.
-- Dwight Freeney didn't have a single tackle or a sack in this game. He earned credit for one quarterback hit. But in the fourth quarter, there were two plays where he had an impact without getting any stats notched. It was his pressure that forced Leftwich to step in the pocket, allowing Raheem Brock to get the team's only sack of the day. And he also did a great job of pushing left tackle Khalif Barnes into the Jaguars quarterback on a third down early in the fourth quarter which caused the pass to fall way short of the intended target, forcing a punt from deep in their own half of the field.
-- Justin Snow led the Colts' coverage teams in tackles with 2 solo efforts and 1 assist. Others getting credited with a tackle on special teams were Marlin Jackson, Bo Schobel, Keith O'Neil, Rocky Boiman, and rookies Freddie Keiaho and Tim Jennings.