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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (8-5) at Indianapolis (7-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - This is unfamiliar territory for Peyton Manning.
By the time of the year, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback is accustomed to questions about dwindling playing time as his team preps for a long-assured playoff berth.
Just last season, in fact, the Colts stirred controversy by benching the multi- time NFL MVP in favor of understudy Curtis Painter, effectively ending their chances at a 16-0 run.
But things are a little different in 2010.
Instead of playing out a postseason-bound string, Manning and his fellow Colts will play for their January lives this weekend, when the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.
An Indianapolis win gives it a split of the season series and forges a flat- footed tie atop the division, though the Jaguars would still hold a tie-breaker edge at the moment because of a slightly-better conference record with two regular-season games remaining. Jacksonville is 7-3 in AFC play at the moment, while the Colts own a 5-4 mark.
A Jacksonville win, however, ends the division race and all but KO's Manning and his team's chances at returning to the Super Bowl tournament for the 11th time in 13 seasons.
The Colts finish the schedule at Oakland and home with Tennessee, while Jacksonville visits Washington and hosts Houston. If Indianapolis beats the Jaguars on Sunday and wins out, it wins the division.
"It's kind of like when you were a youngster going out to the basketball court, with chain nets," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said of his club's situation. "There was a great game called 'make it, take it.' Whoever won stayed on the court. That's where we are. It is an atmosphere where wins are extremely important."
The Jaguars, who won the series opener between the teams by a 31-28 count in Week 4, remained in the lead with a 38-31 defeat of the Oakland Raiders last weekend.
Jacksonville has won five of six games since a 22-point loss at Kansas City dropped the team to 3-4 on Oct. 24.
"You have to play your best football down the stretch and here we are in the middle of the stretch playing our best football," said Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, whose team lost its final four games last season after a 7-5 start. "We stay about our business, hang together. We don't fray at the edges.
"Guys don't start looking for reasons why it's not going well. I think that allows you to weather some of the storms that you're going to face."
The Colts have prevailed in 14 of 19 all-time matchups with Jacksonville and had won three straight in the series prior to the above-mentioned last-second victory by the Jaguars in Week 4. Jacksonville has beaten the Colts only twice in nine lifetime games in Indianapolis, with its most recent triumph a 23-21 upset in 2008, and has never swept a home-and-home set from the Colts since the clubs became divisional foes in 2002.
The last six contests in this series have all been decided by seven points or less, with five of those tilts having a margin of victory of four points or fewer.
Del Rio is 5-10 against the Colts during his career as a head coach, while Caldwell is 2-1 against both Del Rio and the Jaguars since taking over for Tony Dungy in 2009.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The strengths are in predictable places for the Colts, who lead the league in passing yardage (304.0 ypg), are second in scoring (26.7 ppg) and fifth in total yardage (383.7 ypg). Things have not gone so well on the ground for Indianapolis, which brings up the rear of the league's 32 teams at 79.7 yards per game. Jacksonville hasn't wowed many with its stinginess, allowing a 25th- best 25.5 points per week while placing 26th in total yardage allowed (371.2 ypg) and 28th in passing yardage allowed (258.3 ypg). The Jaguars are slightly less porous when stopping the run, placing 18th in the league with a 112.8 yards-per-game clip.
Manning is 13-5 lifetime against the Jaguars and has completed 405-of-629 attempts for 5,014 yards with 36 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 99.4 passer rating in those games. He has 63 career 300-yard passing games, which is tied with Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most in NFL history. Rookie running back Javarris James, an undrafted free agent, leads all rookies with six rushing touchdowns. On the outside, with 1,213 receiving yards, wideout Reggie Wayne now has five seasons with 1,200 receiving yards -- the second-most in club history behind Marvin Harrison's six. And, with six catches and two touchdowns in last week's 30-28 win at Tennessee, receiver Pierre Garcon now has a career- high 52 catches. He also has four touchdowns in 2010, equaling his career-best from last season.
For the Jaguars, linebackers Daryl Smith and Kirk Morrison are tied for the team lead with 66 tackles apiece. Morrison has 54 solo stops, while Smith has contributed 48 on his own.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Pounding the rock has been the ticket to success for the Jaguars, who've churned out an average of 157.8 yards per week on the ground, second-best in the league. Elsewhere, Jacksonville is 12th in scoring offense (22.7 ppg), 15th in total yardage (342.0 ypg) and 29th in passing yardage (184.2 ypg). It's been a trying year by the numbers for the Colts defense, who are 23rd in the league in scoring defense (24.5 ppg), 20th in total yardage allowed (344.5 ypg) and 29th in run defense (141.1 ypg). They've been successful by default at defending the pass, where foes have only thrown enough to generate 203.4 yards per game, making Indy the eighth-best in the league in that category.
In his last two games against the Colts, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard has five touchdowns, one interception and a 101.9 rating. In four games against the AFC South in 2010, he is 3-1 and has completed 62-of-84 passes for 680 yards, four touchdowns and a 108.2 rating. Garrard is second in the NFL with 118.9 fourth-quarter rating, behind only Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger's 121.1. After throwing for three touchdowns against Oakland last week, Garrard now has 20 scoring passes in 2010, tying Mark Brunell's single-season franchise record from 1998 and 2000. The Jaguars have rushed for 200 or more yards as a team in three straight games, and mighty mite Maurice Jones-Drew aims for a seventh consecutive game with at least 100. He also seeks a third straight game with 100 yards against the Colts and has five games of surpassing the century mark in his career against Indianapolis. Jones-Drew's 883 career rushing yards against the Colts are his most against any opponent. Another back, Rashad Jennings, rushed for 109 yards on five carries against Oakland, becoming the sixth player in 50 years to average 20-plus yards per rush in a game with a minimum of five attempts. He seeks a fourth straight game with a rushing touchdown. Elsewhere, tight end Marcedes Lewis needs one touchdown catch to become the second player in club history with 10 scoring receptions in a season.
For the Colts, end Dwight Freeney leads all active NFL players with 41 career forced fumbles, including one last week. Another end, Robert Mathis, needs 1 1/2 sacks to post 10 or more in a season for the fourth time in his career.
Jacksonville's Jones-Drew against an iffy Colts' run defense is the fantasy definition of a no-brainer, while tight end Lewis has earned consideration as well. Also worthy of a thought is Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee, who figures to be busy. Manning remains a similar must-play for the Colts regardless of matchup, and his presence creates value for both Wayne and Garcon. Also important is kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Given their recent history of dominance in the AFC South, it's odd to see the Colts fighting for postseason life in Week 15. That said, they've shown that they know the way to the playoffs and should be considered a favorite until officially knocked from the perch. With Manning still on the roster, Indianapolis is the logical choice.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 24, Jaguars 20
12/16 13:06:21 ET
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