Jack Del Rio shouldn't have worried so much about the ‘illegal' crowd noise this past week. Instead, he probably should have focused on the Colts, who executed their game plan beautifully on both sides of the ball and shredded his undisciplined and over-matched team.
Defensively the Colts played with passion and a determination that absolutely stoned the vaunted Jags rushing attack. Maurice Jones-Drew must have thought he had entered a beehive what with the fevor-pitched buzz in the Luke and how he was swarmed all day. After weeks of heavy criticism from both the media and the fans (here included) the Colts defense responded with one of their best outings in one of the most critical games and they were angry and aggressive right from the start.
Robert Mathis set the tone on the first possession when he recorded a monster sack to force Jacksonville into their league low 13th three and out. From then on it was clear that the defense had come to play.
For the unit, the game plan was simple: make Gerrard win the game - which he couldn't do by himself. By keeping 8 guys in the box, the undersized (and shorthanded) defense made sure Jones-Drew, the NFL's second leading rusher never had a chance to find his mojo and without it the Jags looked confused.
Offensively, the Colts hummed right along for a second straight week.
The Colts' defensive attitude clearly carried over to the offense, which dominated the line of scrimmage and (gasp) imposed their will running the football. Downfield Donald Brown finally lived up to the nickname and the hype stampeding for a career high 129 yards.
Dropping both safeties 15 and 20 yards deep, the Jaguars were determined not to get beat over the top. Instead they got picked apart underneath as Manning surgically engineered scoring drives of 8 plays for 82 yards and 11 plays 89 yards with short curls and crossing routes. Even special teams was solid. Besides the "fair catch touchdown," the unit played hard and fast culminating in Tyjuan Hagler's onside kick return touchdown (!!!!!!!!!! - if you weren't screaming your head off after that check your pulse).
Overall the effort and fundamentals were terrific. Receivers held onto the ball and defenders held on to the Jags. In fact, while fans usually just hope for average tackling, tonight the tackling was exceptional. Oh and Peyton now has gone 2 games INT free.
The game had the feel of a playoff atmosphere (essentially it was) and the Colt's responded to the challenge. The score wasn't even close to indicating how one sided the game was. Fans and the players should be very pleased with the end result, yet two critical and daunting hurdles remain.
The first, is the injury to Austin Collie. Watching Austin go down was another terrifying moment. And while it's way too early to prognosticate, multiple consecutive head injuries can have lasting effects and even end a players' career. Collie has now suffered 3 concussions in 6 weeks, which is very very worrisome. Tonight's latest hit will probably keep him out until the playoffs and certainly changes the dynamic of our offense.
Anyone who might not understand the importance of Austin Collie to the offense (if any doubters actually remain) and who watched tonight's game saw the incredible impact Collie has on the offense. With Collie on the field, the offense was electric. His presence opens up the field, especially the middle, and keeps the safeties honest. As good as White and Tamme have been filling in for Clark and Collie, they aren't as fast, elusive and polished. It was evident in the change from the first to the second half. When Collie went down, the Colt's offense lost an entire dimension. The plays became more basic, the communication broke down (especially on the play where White broke off his route towards the sidelines) and the defense keyed on the run. Without Collie to chase after, the Jags brought down a safety or linebacker to help against Brown.
(Wait, did I just write that. A defense needed help stopping the Colts' run game? Really? Awesome.)
Going forward, the Colts need Collie. They can't win without him and their record proves that: 7-2 when he plays and 1-4 when he has sat out. (If he was healthy the Colts would be 10-4 no question).
Another problem is the ‘letdown' effect - a strange thought considering every game is essentially a must win, but hear me out.
The Colts had 9 days to listen to all the hype and prepare for the game. All of their remaining contests were/are critical but the Jacksonville one was the only must win. Theoretically, the Colts could lose another game and still win the division. Before tonight that was impossible. If Jacksonville won, the season was over. Now, there is a tiny opening and way we could still get in were we to drop another...
It reminds me of being a contestant on "Who Wants to be A Millionaire"When you prepare for the show, the biggest concern is not to look like an idiot by missing one of the first questions right? (Losing to a Jack Del Rio coached team twice in one season certainly qualifies as looking idiotic). Most contestants go in with goal of at least reaching the 32,000 level. Failing to answer the 32,000 question and you walk away with only 1,000 dollars.
For the Colts, that level was the Jags. Losing and being bounced from the playoffs this early would be an embarrassment. As a contestant, you focus on answering that one question. Of course you dream of going all the way but you really concern yourself with the 32,000 level.
(If you don't believe me, watch the show. Most contestants burn at least 1 or 2 of their lifelines on relatively easy questions before the 64,000 question because they want to be absolutely sure).
Once you hit that mark, which the Colts did tonight, there is a tendency to relax a little. You start thinking ‘ok well at the very least I will go home with 32,000.‘
This is where complacency sets in, which can be absolutely dangerous. Maybe the contestant lets up just a little and loses focus. Maybe the contestant has burned his/her lifelines. Whatever it is, the 64,000 dollar question isn't all that much more difficult than the previous one, it's the focus and the discipline not to get complacent or look ahead which is tricky to avoid.
The greatest weapon to combat this is Jim Cadwell's philosophy and Peyton Manning's work ethic. Between the "every game is the same mantra" and Peyton's 999 hours of film study, the Colts are the best-equipped team to handle such a let-down. However, in losing Collie, we've already used a lifeline. Furthermore, the problem isn't with Peyton or the offense, it's the uncertainty of whether the defense will bring the same energy, especially on the road. Everyone told our defense how good MJD is, yet they better not forget that McFadden is a top-tier back as well. If the defense can keep it going and maintain their focus, the Colts should secure yet another AFC title. The million-dollar question is still out there for the taking but for now we can't look ahead.
See you Sunday, Oakland.
BTW - The title is courtesy of actionoxford who came up with the clever caption during the game on the open thread.