‘Thursday Night Football’ Preview: Colts keep doing just enough to win

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars
8 p.m. ET, NFL Network

In the 10-plus seasons since the NFL realigned the divisions for the 2002 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been a burr in the saddle of the Indianapolis Colts' dominance over the AFC South, winning eight of 21 contests, including a 19-13 win in the 2011 regular-season finale and a 22-17 win in September, both games at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the first meeting this season, the Colts jumped out to a 14-3 lead at the half before the Jaguars stormed back to take the lead early in the fourth quarter. The Colts thought they were on their way to a second straight win under first-year head coach Chuck Pagano when Adam Vinatieri hit a 37-yard field goal with 56 seconds remaining, but Blaine Gabbert connected with Cecil Shorts for an 80-yard touchdown on the opening play of the following possession to send the Colts into their bye with a 1-2 record.

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A lot has changed since Sept. 23, most importantly Pagano's leukemia diagnosis and subsequent leave of absence. The Colts have used Pagano's circumstance, as he calls it, to rally together as a team, and as a family, to live his vision and are 4-1 under interim head coach Bruce Arians. The Jaguars are going in a completely different direction, losing five straight, including three losses at home by an average of 24 points.

When the Jaguars have the ball

You've undoubtedly heard the phrase "the unstoppable force meets the immovable object." Well, this matchup is the opposite of that. According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, the Jaguars offense enters Week 10 ranked 31st in team offense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which includes a 31st ranking in passing offense and 29th in rushing offense. Meanwhile, the Colts are ranked 32nd in team defense DVOA, and are 32nd against the pass and 31st against the run. So the Jaguars offense is very stoppable, and the Colts defense is very movable.

Since Maurice Jones-Drew went down with a foot injury — MJD and fullback Greg Jones (hip) are both ruled "out" for Thursday night's game — the Jaguars running game has grounded to a halt, producing just 60 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry as Rashad Jennings and Jalen Parmele get the carries. Neither back will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night, which means the success of the offense will fall on the shoulders of Gabbert, who ranked dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric as a rookie, and isn't faring much better this season, where he's ahead of only Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel among quarterbacks with at least 68 pass attempts.

The passing offense could improve now that Laurent Robinson, whom the club signed to a five-year, $32.5 million contract in March, is back after missing the month of October with a concussion. This week, Gabbert should also benefit from facing a Colts secondary that will be without both of their starting cornerbacks. Vontae Davis had already been ruled out by Arians, but Jerraud Powers injured his big toe in Sunday's 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins and was officially ruled out on Tuesday. Journeymen Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler will start at corner for the Colts, with Josh Gordy and Marshay Green adding depth and seeing time in nickel and dime situations.

When the Colts have the ball

Quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck is coming off his best game as a pro, completing 30 of 48 pass attempts for an NFL rookie record 433 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 105.6 in the 23-20 win over the Dolphins. On the season, Luck is ranked 11th in FO's DYAR metric, ahead of the likes of Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and fellow rookies Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, and Ryan Tannehill and well ahead of Gabbert and Weeden. The Colts offense flows through Reggie Wayne, who leads the NFL in targets (101), receptions (61) and receiving yards (835), despite playing with a new quarterback and in a new offensive system. Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton have begun to provide a deep threat element to the passing offense, though Avery is "questionable" for Thursday night's game with a hip injury.

Fifth-round running back Vick Ballard has not only pushed Mewelde Moore off the roster with his ability to handle third-down responsibilities, he could supplant first-round pick Donald Brown as the No. 1 guy in the backfield. Ballard is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has five receptions for 73 yards with a gravity-defying touchdown as a receiver out of the backfield in the last three games, all Colts wins. Jacksonville's defense is not very good at defending the run or pass (they currently rank 25th in DVOA against the pass, and are 28th against the run), but with safety Dwight Lowery (ankle) ruled out, cornerbacks Rashean Mathis (groin) and Derek Cox (back) at less than 100 percent, and the Jaguars boasting a league-low eight sacks on the season, the Colts will likely ride Luck's hot hand on Thursday night.

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How it could go: Everyone in the Jaguars building needs a win this week. They're 1-7 on the season, have lost five straight and Thursday night's game against the Colts will be the only time they'll be on prime time this season. New owner Shad Khan was "embarrassed" by another blowout loss at home on Sunday and if things do not improve, sweeping changes could be coming within that organization. A Jaguars win would not be a major surprise, as the Colts have not blown the doors off any opponent during their 5-3 start, five wins that have come by an average of  just 3.8 points. If any team is primed for a letdown, it would be the Colts. They rallied around each another in the wake of Pagano's diagnosis for an emotional 30-27 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 5, and were blown out 35-9 the following Sunday by the New York Jets. This past Sunday's win over the Dolphins was equally emotional, as Pagano not only attended the game, but he addressed the club afterwards before heading off to a second round of chemotherapy.

With a short week, mounting injuries on both sides of the ball, the Colts may be susceptible to a letdown game. The Colts are a much better team than the Jaguars right now, and with over two dozen players, including Luck and veterans such as Robert Mathis, shaving their heads this week in support of Pagano, I think the Colts do just enough against the Jaguars to win and use the mini-bye week to get healthy for Week 11's meeting with the New England Patriots.

Prediction: Colts 21, Jaguars 16

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