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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (4-11) at Indianapolis (10-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Let's face it. There are plenty of Jacksonville Jaguars fans who look at the team's recovery from a 0-8 start to win four of its next seven games as a bad thing.
"You're not going to make the playoffs anyway," they rail, "so why start winning meaningless games and screw up what would have been a great chance at the top overall draft choice."
And, in practical terms, they might be right. While a 0-16 season would have been something to dread during its occurrence, it would have yielded the first crack at a franchise-altering player next April.
With four wins in the season's second half -- heading into this week's road finale at Indianapolis -- the Jaguars have not only escaped the AFC's South Division cellar (now occupied by the Houston Texans), but they could finish ahead of as many as six other teams who enter Week 17 with four or fewer wins.
A win at Lucas Oil Stadium would also be their fourth straight on the road, which would be their longest away-from-home run in eight years.
The three losses in the seven weeks since the midway point have also been competitive, coming by a combined total of 11 points. Before the streak ended, Jacksonville had lost eight times -- with the narrowest margin coming in a 19-9 defeat at Oakland in Week 2.
Jacksonville has also won in its last two trips to Indianapolis, including a 22-17 triumph in Week 3 last year when running back Maurice Jones-Drew rumbled for 177 yards and scored once.
The veteran has exceeded 100 yards just once this year, against Houston on Dec. 5.
Tight end Marcedes Lewis will be back in the fold this week as well. He missed most of the first 2013 meeting with the Colts -- won by Indy, 37-3, in Week 4 -- with a calf problem, but has played well lately.
"We're finding out more about his hands and his ability to make plays," coach Gus Bradley said. "He's in a zone where he feels real confident in his abilities. He's stepping out of the normal box he felt he was in and that's really cool to see with him. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now."
That said, the Jaguars have still lost two straight and are last in the NFL in both scoring offense (15.8 points) and total offense (290.1 yards) per week, and they face a Colts team that's still got a chance at a No. 2 AFC playoff seed after a recent return to success.
Indianapolis has won two in a row by a combined 48-10 score after a five-game slog in which it won just twice and allowed 38, 27, 40, 14 and 42 points.
Now seeded fourth in the AFC mix, it can get a first-round playoff by with a defeat of Jacksonville, alongside losses by Cincinnati (against Baltimore) and New England (against Buffalo). It'll take the third conference seed with a win over the Jaguars and losses by one of those two teams.
"Teams who've won the Super Bowl in the past got hot at certain points in the season," defensive end Cory Redding said. "They had their difficult times. They had parts where they were losing. If you look at the Ravens last year, they were playing great. Middle of the season, they started getting injured. Then they went into a slump and then, man, got to the playoffs and got hot. Look what they did."
Indianapolis, which had fallen into a rut of falling behind in games, jumped on the Texans and the Chiefs in the last two weeks by a combined margin of 33-10 before halftime, then coasted home. In their previous six games, they'd been outscored, 114-24, in the opening two quarters.
"We now have momentum going into the playoffs," linebacker Bjoern Werner said.
But it's not all been about the defense. Quarterback Andrew Luck and Co. have scored 76 points in their last 10 quarters, thanks in large part to a run game that's emerged since a season-ending injury to leading pass-catching threat Reggie Wayne in October.
Indianapolis ran for 152 and 135 yards in the last two wins after an eight- week stretch in which it reached triple digits just three times. In its first five games -- in which the low rushing total was 109 yards -- the team was 4-1.
Since the arrival of November, Donald Brown has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns in the Colts' five wins. In the three losses, he has eight carries for 11 yards.
He ran for 65 yards on three attempts in the defeat of the Jaguars in September, while teammate Trent Richardson had 60 yards on 20 rushes. Still, Richardson has been a relative non-factor since his trumpeted arrival from Cleveland, averaging less than three yards per run in 13 games.
Luck was 21-of-35 for 257 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Jacksonville and has completed more than 64 percent of his throws and connected on seven TD passes in his last three games.
"We've got a lot of great things going on right now and certainly controlling the clock is one thing that will play a key factor down the stretch here and in the playoffs," coach Chuck Pagano said.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
High and Tight
Jaguars tight end Lewis has played a sizable role in the team's significantly more memorable second half. A touchdown against the Colts would mark the fifth straight game in which he's caught a scoring pass and he enters the game just six catches shy of becoming the fourth player in franchise history to grab at least 300 balls in a career. He's caught four passes in each of the last two games, after not exceeding three catches in any of his first eight appearances of 2013.
Picks for Six
Whatever other game-planning Jacksonville's Chad Henne has digested heading into Sunday, he'd be wise to steer as clear as possible of Indianapolis cornerback Darius Butler, who's been stellar in his last two games against Jacksonville.
The fifth-year man from Connecticut, a second-round draft pick of New England in 2009, has three interceptions in the past two against the Jaguars, including two that he's run back for touchdowns. The 27-year-old has 11 career INTs, four of which have come all the way back.
While insignificant and perhaps unwelcomed for the reasons stated previously, the Jaguars' second-half resurgence has provided some validation for Bradley as a head coach. That said, after a 34-point loss the first time around, there's no significant reason to believe going in that the result will be any different in matchup No. 2. Closer perhaps, but with the same team on top.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 31, Jaguars 17
12/27 09:46:06 ET