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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (13-0) at Jacksonville (7-6)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Apart from a shot at going 16-0, a milestone that the Indianapolis Colts insist they don't care about, Jim Caldwell's team will have absolutely nothing at stake when it travels to meet the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night.
And yet, according to Caldwell, the Colts will be proceeding as if Thursday's contest against their AFC South rival is indeed meaningful.
"We're going to approach the 14th game as we did 1 to 13," said Caldwell in his Monday press conference. "We're going to go out and play just as we have done the previous 13.
"The only thing that will deter anyone from playing time is health issues."
Indeed, there is sufficient reason to believe that the team, which sewed up homefield advantage throughout the AFC portion of the playoffs and also established an NFL record with its 22nd consecutive regular season win last Sunday, will have significant interest in getting to 14-0 at all costs.
First, the Jaguars have given the Colts some trouble through the years, and beating them this week would likely mean Indianapolis wouldn't have to see the Jags in a sudden-death situation in January.
The last four games in the series have been settled by just 14 points, including Indy's 14-12 home win in Week 1. Prior to that stretch, in a game late in the 2006 season, the Jaguars rocked the Colts by a 44-17 margin before Indianapolis subsequently embarked on a run toward a Super Bowl title.
From a matchup standpoint, the one man the Colts and all of their fans most fear getting injured - quarterback Peyton Manning - isn't likely to be touched on Thursday night. The Jaguars are dead last in the league in sacks with 14, and the notoriously quick-firing Manning has been sacked an NFL-low 10 times all year.
Additionally, it's probably a bit too early to call off the dogs and begin thinking about the postseason, lest Indy get stale before they next play an important game again in mid-January.
None of the logic suggesting that the Colts will be motivated to win the game will be music to the Jaguars' ears, as Jacksonville is in desperate need of a victory that will further its playoff prospects.
The Jags suffered a frustrating 14-10 home defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, as David Garrard completed just 11-of-26 passes for 139 yards with no touchdowns and three sacks absorbed. Jacksonville could muster just 10 first-downs all day.
Jacksonville continues to hang onto the second of two wild card spots in the AFC, edging out similarly 7-6 Baltimore, Miami, and the New York Jets based on a stronger record (6-3) against conference opponents as Week 15 commences.
A victory will help the Jags remain in the driver's seat entering a two-game road stretch that will have Jack Del Rio's squad concluding its regular season at the Patriots (12/27) and Browns (1/3).
The Colts hold a 13-4 edge in the regular season series with Jacksonville, including the aforementioned 14-12 victory when the teams met at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 1. The clubs embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home, with Indy coming up a 23-21 home loser when the teams met in Week 3, and returning the favor with a 28-25 win at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Week 16. The Colts are 2-0 in Jacksonville since suffering a 44-17 loss there in 2006.
Del Rio is 4-9 against the Colts as a head coach, while Indianapolis' Caldwell is 1-0 against both Del Rio and the Jaguars as a head coach.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though Indianapolis comes to town averaging 27.6 points per game, and ranking No. 1 in the NFL in passing offense (296.4 yards per game), the Colts were able to finish off only two drives for scores when they met Jacksonville back in Week 1. Manning (3905 passing yards, 29 TD, 14 INT) threw for 301 yards on 28-of-38 passing in that contest, but the Colts missed on a pair of fourth-down conversions, turned the ball over twice including a Manning INT and Joseph Addai fumble, and missed a field goal to limit their scoring output. If nothing else, Manning might want to erase the memory of an uncharacteristically shaky performance against the Broncos last week, when he completed just 20-of-42 passes for 220 yards and offset his four touchdown passes, including three to tight end Dallas Clark (82 receptions, 8 TD), with a season-high three interceptions. Austin Collie (45 receptions, 4 TD) caught Manning's other TD, but top wideouts Reggie Wayne (87 receptions, 9 TD) and Pierre Garcon (50 receptions, 6 TD) had a quiet day with just six combined catches. Addai (729 rushing yards, 48 receptions, 12 TD), who also had a touchdown in the Week 1 victory over the Jags, led the Colts with 67 rushing yards and 49 receiving yards last week.
Jacksonville enters Week 15 ranked just 20th in NFL total defense (346.5 yards per game), and has experienced the aforementioned struggles in the pass- rushing department, but has also exhibited a bend-but-don't-break ability that has kept the team in games. The Jags forced three turnovers against the Dolphins to keep things interesting a week ago, with rookie cornerback Derek Cox (58 tackles, 3 INT) coming up with an interception and cornerback Tyron Brackenridge (30 tackles) and safety Gerald Alexander (39 tackles, 2 INT) both credited with a pair of forced fumbles. Another rookie, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks), had one of the recoveries but was also part of a group that allowed 46 ground yards to the Fins. Linebacker Justin Durant (80 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) posted seven tackles in the loss, one week after winning NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts in a win over the Texans. Cox notched his first career interception off of Manning in Week 1, while since-injured end Reggie Hayward had the lone sack of the QB. Among active players, DT John Henderson (26 tackles) leads the club in sacks with three. Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis (26 tackles, 3 INT), who has missed the last four games with a groin problem, remains a question mark for Thursday.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
If the Jaguars wish to notch their eighth win on Thursday, they will require a better offensive performance than the one they posted against Indy in Week 1, when the team finished with just 228 total yards and 12 first-downs. Top offensive weapon Maurice Jones-Drew played well in that game, rushing 21 times for 97 yards and scoring the team's lone touchdown, but Garrard (2987 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT, 267 rushing yards) was just 14-of-28 for 122 yards without a touchdown or turnover. Since that time, Jones-Drew (1136 rushing yards, 14 TD, 44 receptions) has continued along a path that will likely land him in the Pro Bowl, while Garrard has found chemistry with targets such as Mike Sims- Walker (53 receptions, 6 TD) and tight end Marcedes Lewis (28 receptions, 2 TD). Wideout Torry Holt (46 receptions), who led the Jags with 47 receiving yards in the first meeting with Indy, also paced the club with 71 yards on two catches against Miami. Jones-Drew was held to 59 yards on 18 carries in the contest, his fourth straight game under 100 yards. The Jaguars are a middle-of- the-road 15th in NFL total offense (341.3 yards per game) as Week 15 begins.
If Caldwell seeks to sit some players for precautionary reasons on Thursday night, a bulk of them will probably come on the defensive side of the ball. Indy listed ends Dwight Freeney (abdomen) and Robert Mathis (quadriceps) on their Tuesday injury report, as well as cornerback Jerraud Powers (hamstring) and safety Antoine Bethea (foot), and among the team's starters, it is these figures that seem least likely to play on Thursday. Freeney (22 tackles, 11.5 sacks) had the team's lone sack of Garrard in Week 1, and the absence of him and Mathis (37 tackles, 9.5 sacks) would make life much easier for the quarterback. On the back end, a possibly depleted secondary will be trying to wash away the residue of last week's performance by Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall, who set a single-game NFL record with 21 receptions totaling 200 yards. Veteran corners Kelvin Hayden (27 tackles, 1 INT) and Tim Jennings (49 tackles, 2 INT) should see a great deal of action on Thursday, with safety support from Melvin Bullitt (74 tackles). Raheem Brock (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks), who had a sack last week, could be the team's best pass rusher if Freeney and Mathis are absent. The run-stopping group attempting to slow Jones-Drew, which ranks 17th in the league (110.4 yards per game), is led by linebacker Gary Brackett (84 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and tackles Daniel Muir (44 tackles) and Eric Foster (26 tackles).
Here comes the dark side of selecting steady fantasy players like Manning, Addai, Wayne, and Clark in the draft. Although Caldwell claims the Colts will use their top personnel and play the game to win, there's just no guarantee. Moreover, if there is a big lead in this contest on either side, the motivation to use any and all of the above players will be lessened. So, while also noting that Indy put up only 14 points the last time these teams met, you'd be well-advised to use other options if you have them.
On the Jacksonville side, players like Jones-Drew and Sims-Walker remain solid plays, and if you own them, you'll be rooting for Caldwell to call off the dogs early. Even though the Colts could feature backups at some point in this contest, the Jaguars defense remains a risky play.
OK, Jim Caldwell, we'll choose to believe you until you give us a reason not to. If the Colts indeed function as if this is a meaningful game, they're clearly a better team than the Jaguars, though Jacksonville should be fired up for this one no matter what, and has a history of playing Indianapolis tough. Jones-Drew should get enough done on the ground to keep the Jags in it, and though not the healthiest group, the Jacksonville defense has seen Indianapolis enough not to be too surprised by Manning's exploits. The guess here is that the game comes down to a couple of late possessions, and that Manning makes one more big play than Garrard when it matters. And if backup QB Curtis Painter enters this contest at any point before the fourth quarter, all bets are off on the above assessment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 23, Jaguars 20.
12/16 10:26:16 ET