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In 2005, the Indianapolis Colts celebrated their third straight AFC South title by winning it on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ home field. This season, Indianapolis can make it four straight but can expect a more difficult time doing so at the same venue.
Tony Dungy’s club faces perhaps its toughest road game of the season Sunday when it meets the Jaguars at Alltel Stadium.
Indianapolis (10-2) is looking for its third straight win in Jacksonville and fifth in six games overall. If they lose, though, the Colts can still clinch a playoff spot with losses by the New York Jets, Cincinnati, Denver and Kansas City.
But Jacksonville (7-5) enters this contest with the fourth-ranked defense overall and is the only team ranked in the top six in rushing and passing defense. The Jaguars have given up just 47 points at home this season en route to a 5-1 record there, including shutouts of defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh and the Jets.
“Jacksonville makes everybody play better,” Dungy said. His team hasn’t lost three in a row on the road since closing out the 2001 season with four straight defeats away from the RCA Dome.
A year ago, the Colts became the fourth team in NFL history to start a season 13-0 with a 26-18 road win over the Jaguars, continuing their domination of the AFC South. Indianapolis’ hopes of joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only unbeaten teams in NFL history ended the next week with a 26-17 home loss to San Diego.
The Colts finished 2005 with a 14-2 record, but was upset by Pittsburgh 21-18 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Indianapolis could have entered this contest as division champions had it not been for Tennessee kicker Rod Bironas’ leg. His 60-yard field goal with 7 seconds left gave the Titans a 20-17 home win, ending Indianapolis’ streak of 12 straight victories within the division.
“We still haven’t accomplished our first goal and that’s to win the division,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said on the Colts’ official Web site, colts.com. “We had an opportunity Sunday and just didn’t get it done. We’ve got another opportunity this week against a good opponent. I think we have our work cut out for us.
“Obviously, we didn”t do well over the last four-game split, but you get hot in the last four games, it’s all a different story.”
Dungy also believes his players can make the corrections needed to win again.
“We’re into the last quarter of the season, and I think this will be the part of the season that defines us. We’ve lost our margin for error, and I think we’ll respond,” he said.
Over the last five games, Indianapolis has committed 11 turnovers compared with only four in the first seven games. The Colts also have needed two-time MVP Peyton Manning’s late-game heroics to rally three times this season, and have struggled to defend the run all year.
“Everybody in this locker room needs to do their job better, all the way down the line,” Manning said. “Everyone needs to improve this week and, hopefully, that will result in better play.”
Manning, who leads the league with 22 TD passes, is 3-1 all-time on the road against the Jaguars, passing for an average of 275.5 yards with nine TDs and three interceptions. He threw for 324 yards and two scores in last season’s division-clinching win in Jacksonville.
Marvin Harrison, a favorite target of Manning’s, needs five receptions to become the fourth player in league history with 1,000 for his career, joining Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Tim Brown.
“It’s something you don’t come into your career thinking about. But it is something special,” said Harrison, who had seven catches for a season-high 172 yards in the loss to Tennessee.
Jacksonville (7-5) furthered its postseason hopes with a 24-10 road win over Miami last Sunday. David Garrard, who’s taken over at quarterback for the injured Byron Leftwich, was 16 of 22 for 229 yards and two scores.
“We felt we had a chance to put the ball up and make some big plays,” said Garrard, who’s 4-2 as a starter. “I feel as long as I keep moving, I have a chance to find somebody open and get the ball downfield.”
Garrard started in last season’s home loss to the Colts and had one of his best outings of the season, going 26 of 35 for 250 yards and a touchdown.
“Everybody knows what’s at stake. It’s beat the Colts,” Garrard said on the jaguars.com Web site.
“We’re not interested in winning the statistical battle. We’re interested in winning the game,” coach Jack Del Rio said on the Jags’ Web site.
Taylor, who’s yet to make the Pro Bowl, needs just 48 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth time in his nine-year career. Jones-Drew has scored in four straight games and leads all rookies with nine total scores.
Taylor ran for 74 yards in the first meeting, and Jones-Drew added 103.