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The Jacksonville Jaguars’ improbable season continues this week with a road test against the Indianapolis Colts. Since defeating Indy in stunning fashion back in week four, Jacksonville has managed to roll off a 7-3 record, thanks in part to key victories against Oakland and Dallas.
But it is the Colts they’re facing—led by none other than Peyton Manning.
A Jaguars victory on Sunday seals the AFC South title for Jacksonville—something that has been a long time coming for the Jaguars faithful.
For all you Jaguars fans out there, here are my three storylines to watch for in Sunday’s crucial matchup with the Colts.
Win or else. It’s come to this for one of the NFL’s premier franchises—handle the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium or accept the fact that you won’t be involved in the postseason for the first time since 2001. It’s that simple. Despite entering the game trailing Jacksonville by only one game, the Colts must win their final three games to take the AFC South. And that starts with the Jags.
Grabbing the baton. The last time Jacksonville won a division title was in 1999, and it was the AFC Central. They can end that drought and serve notice to the Colts and Tennessee Titans that they’ll be contending for the AFC South for the foreseeable future by completing the season sweep of the Colts. A victory clinches the division.
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Contrasting styles. The Colts and Jaguars have proven that there are two ways to succeed. Indy leans heavily on the right arm of QB Peyton Manning, who’s on pace to deliver an NFL single season record 700 passes. Jacksonville climbs on the back of RB Maurice Jones-Drew and lets his sturdy legs carry them. No one throws the ball more than the Colts. Only Kansas City runs it more often than the Jags.
3 Key Colts
LB Gary Brackett. Brackett is the brains and emotional leader of the defense. But he must measure up to Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew if the Colts are going to slow down the NFL’s second-leading rusher. Brackett is tenacious, but only 5’11”, 235 pounds. Jones-Drew is a dumptruck with a pulse at 5’7″, 209.
WR Pierre Garcon. He’s shrugged off a slow start that was caused by injuries and a lack of steady practice. Over the past five games, Garcon has 29 catches, 320 yards and three touchdowns. He’s emerged as the big play threat that served the team so well in 2009. When Garcon plays like this, the offense has quick-strike potential and WR Reggie Wayne is given more opportunities to excel.
RB Donald Brown. The Colts running game remains the NFL’s worst, but at least it was serviceable in the most recent win over the Titans. They averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, but offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen and QB Peyton Manning stuck with it. Brown and backup RB Javarris James combined for 32 carries. The threat of a running game takes some of the load off of Manning. That’s Brown’s charge.
Lewis has been an absolute force in opposing secondaries this season
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3 key Jaguars
QB . Most of the attention will be focused on RB Maurice Jones-Drew, and for good reason. But Garrard quietly has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. If the Colts sell out to stop the Jaguars’ running game, Garrard is more than capable of beating them with his arm (2,141 yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs) or his legs (232 yards, 4 TDs). He’s especially dangerous on bootlegs that take advantage of DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis being too aggressive in getting up the field.
DTs Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu. Consider them the new John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Alualu was the surprise pick in the first round of the April draft while Knighton was a third-round pick in ’09. Together, they’re a force in the defensive interior. Knighton has four sacks, while Alualu has collected 3.5. QB Peyton Manning is at his best when he’s able to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush. He won’t be able to do that if Knighton and Alualu win the interior battles.
TE Marcedes Lewis. The 2006 first-round draft pick has emerged as one of the league’s premier players at his position. Although Lewis has a modest 45 receptions, he’s tied for third in the AFC with nine touchdowns. Garrard always knows where he is, and on Sunday, he likely will be using his 6’6″, 275-pound frame to fend off smaller Colts linebackers and safeties.
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Jacksonville appears on the verge of supplanting the Colts and Titans as the best team in the AFC South. But the Jaguars’ wait might be a bit longer. Look for QB Peyton Manning to generate more difference-making plays than RB Maurice Jones-Drew, and look for the Colts to keep their playoff aspirations alive. It’ll be close—it always is—but the final score will be