The Indianapolis Colts knew two weekends ago that their five-year reign as AFC South champions was over. All they’re concerned with, however, is extending their six-year streak of making it to the playoffs.
That’s exactly what they can do with a win Thursday night in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars will try to partially salvage their season of failed expectations by at least delaying Indianapolis’ seventh straight entrance into the postseason.
The Colts’ chances of claiming a sixth consecutive division title - or even making the playoffs - appeared to be over early, as they stumbled to a 3-4 start while Tennessee was in the process of winning its first 10 games.
Indianapolis (10-4), though, hasn’t lost since late October, winning seven in a row to put itself at the top of the AFC wild-card standings. With a win in Jacksonville, the Colts will be back in the playoffs, continuing the NFL’s longest active streak and locking themselves into the No. 5 seed.
“At 3-4, we knew what the problems were,” coach Tony Dungy told the team’s official Web site. “A lot of it was ourselves and our execution. That’s what we focused on, more so than pointing the finger at someone or figuring out who was to blame. A lot of that gets back to the players really listening to the coaches.”
One of those first four losses came at home to the Jaguars (5-9), who never broke out of their early season funk even after it looked like they might. Josh Scobee hit a 51-yard field goal in the waning seconds on Sept. 21, lifting Jacksonville to a 23-21 victory over the Colts, their first win of the season.
Yet despite getting to 2-2 the next week, the Jaguars never found the groove they did last season when they went 11-5. Jacksonville has gone 4-7 since its visit to Indianapolis, leaving it with nothing to play for down the stretch.
To Dungy though, Jacksonville’s motivation is simple - ruin the season of one of its biggest rivals.
“I’m sure they would like to knock us out,” Dungy said. “We haven’t really been in that situation, but when you are and you can’t get in, that’s the motivation, especially if it’s a division rival. I’m sure they’d like to keep us out of the playoffs, so I’m sure we’ll get their best.”
The Colts were hardly at their best last week despite piling up 421 yards against Detroit. They let the winless Lions tie it at 21 early in the fourth quarter before securing a 31-21 victory.
Manning finished 28-of-37 for 318 yards, his third 300-yard game of the season and his fourth straight game completing at least 70 percent of his passes.
“You could tell the focus was on (Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne),” Clark said. “I know they’re not too happy, because they want to get their receptions and their catches and their looks, but I’m just glad to be able to step up like that and make some catches.”
Manning and his receivers may need to have another big day against Jacksonville. The Colts have the worst rushing offense in the AFC, averaging 80.1 yards and 3.4 per carry.
Despite facing three of the 10 worst rush defenses in the league the past three weeks, Indianapolis hasn’t gotten its ground game going. It gained 3.2 yards per carry in wins over Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit, and against the Lions didn’t have starter Joseph Addai, who was out with a right shoulder injury.
Addai is expected to play Thursday, but running against the Jaguars won’t be easy. Jacksonville has given up 3.6 yards per carry in its past six games, the seventh-stingiest average in the NFL in that stretch.
The Jaguars, though, placed second-leading tackler Daryl Smith on injured reserve Tuesday. Without the linebacker for the final two games, team captain Mike Peterson will return to the starting lineup.
Stopping Green Bay in short-yardage situations on Sunday made the difference for the Jaguars, who beat Green Bay 20-16 to avoid their first five-game single-season losing streak since 2001.
The Packers ran for 84 yards on 28 carries (3.0 ypc), and nursing a 13-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, were stuffed on a fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 44-yard-line. The Jaguars took over, and nine plays later David Garrard found Maurice Jones-Drew from 14 yards out to take a 14-13 lead.
“That was the turning point in the game,” defensive end Paul Spicer said. “The momentum could have gone either way.”
With Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor finding running room difficult to come by, the Jaguars’ lack of a solid rushing attack has been their downfall. Jacksonville was second in the league last season in rushing, gaining 149.4 yards per game, but that average has slipped to 110.8 this season.
The one game when the Jaguars had rushing success, though, came in Indianapolis, as Taylor and Jones-Drew each went over 100 yards and Jacksonville ran for 236.
Taylor, however, is out for the season, leaving the onus on Jones-Drew, who’s averaged 6.8 yards per carry in five career games against the Colts.
Indianapolis beat the Jaguars 29-7 on the road last season, and has won three of four in Jacksonville.