Last time the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars faced off at Jacksonville's EverBank Field, it was Jan. 1, 2012, and the Jags' victory in the season finale for both teams sealed the first overall pick for the 2-14 Colts. After the Colts returned the favor with a 27-10 win on Thursday night, the entire Jaguars organization might have regretted that earlier victory. Luck, the man selected with that pick, frustrated the Jacksonville defense with 18 completions in 26 attempts for 227 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
The frustration for the Jags was that Luck threw at least three passes that were either picked off and called back, or almost intercepted. But it was an easy win for the 6-3 Colts, while the 1-8 Jaguars could only wonder about a series of missed opportunities.
With 3:14 left in the first quarter, Luck threw a deep pass that was intercepted by cornerback Aaron Ross, but the pick was negated by a roughing the passer call on defensive lineman Terrance Knighton. Later in the game, a potential stop of receiver Reggie Wayne became a first down when safety Chris Prosinski failed to touch Wayne while he was down, and the wily veteran moved the ball forward for a first down. On Jacksonville's first drive of the second quarter, receiver Laurent Robinson fumbled, the call was originally down by contact, but it was called a turnover upon review.
That was Jacksonville's evening in a nutshell.
Jags coach Mike Mularkey, who will no doubt be talking to someone from the league office Friday, was visibly frustrated by the officiating, especially when Luck scored his second rushing touchdown from the Jacksonville 1-yard line halfway through the second quarter. Luck didn't obviously clear the plane of the end zone with the ball, and though the booth reviewed it upstairs, Mularkey was furious that referee Terry McAulay didn't go under the hood himself. Mularkey picked up a personal foul for throwing his headset on the field, and Jacksonville was penalized a season-high 10 times total for 115 yards.
Still, the real story of the game was Luck, who proved that he could make plays even without his best game in hand. Just four days after he riddled the Miami Dolphins with a rookie single-game record 433 passing yards, Luck showed that he has one key asset common to all the great quarterbacks -- he can forget when things go wrong, and progress to succeed when it counts.
The story of the Colts' season is the inspiration provided by head coach Chuck Pagano, who made an emotional appearance in the locker room after the win over Miami. It was Pagano's first visit to the team's home field of Lucas Oil Stadium since he was diagnosed with leukemia in late September.
"He put everything into perspective," Wayne said before the game. "[Pagano] made you basically tell yourself, 'Why not go out there and give it everything you got, not knowing that tomorrow the thing that you're doing, that you love, whatever that may be, can get snatched away from you?'"
"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves," Luck told Rich Eisen of the NFL Network after the game. "We're prepared to win football games, and it's great to be where we are. We also realize that ... we're on the right path, but it's nowhere near the end goal."
"He's done an outstanding job," Wayne said of his rookie quarterback. "I'm just glad to be on his side. He's been able to do some things I'm not used to -- he's been able to use his legs, get out of the pocket and extend plays. I think he throws better when he's on the run. As far as the comparison [to Peyton Manning], I wouldn't compare the two. I want him to start his own transition, and I want him to be the best he can. When he calls my number, I want to be there to deliver."
No problem there. Wayne, who came into this game leading the league in targets (101) and receiving yards (835), added eight more receptions on 11 targets for 96 yards to wrest the lead in catches away from Minnesota's Percy Harvin. On Luck's first five passes, Wayne was the target.
It's been a perfectly symbiotic relationship between the rookie and the veteran. Luck looks better than he would with most other receivers, and Wayne has been reborn as a primary target in a very different offense than what was seen with Manning in command.
On the other hand, there was Jacksonville's offense. Well, there was Jacksonville's offense in theory. The Jags started off as badly as possible, going three-and-out in its first two drives with possessions that lasted 53 and 57 seconds, respectively. A Colts defense that hadn't forced a turnover in a month got three in this game, including two interceptions (one a pick-six) from cornerback Darius Butler, who had been cut by the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers in the previous 14 months.
Starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who left the game with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter, was 18 of 31 for 209 yards and a pick against a defense without either one of its starting cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers. A Colts front seven without linebacker Robert Mathis sacked Gabbert three times. Without franchise back Maurice Jones-Drew, who has been out since Oct. 21 with a foot injury, Jacksonville could muster just 21 yards on seven carries -- and 10 of those rushing yards came from Gabbert on a scramble.
Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians let his team have it to a degree after the game, telling his players that though they won, the level of execution was not acceptable. "We sure as hell won't beat New England playing like that," Arians said in the locker room.
Still, it was more than enough against a Jags team that might be the worst in the NFL. And with their current inspiration, there's no telling how far the resurgent Colts can go.