When the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars first played each other this season, it was the first game for Indianapolis without Andrew Luck since 2011, the year before he was drafted.
With Luck sidelined due to a shoulder injury, Matt Hasselbeck stepped in and helped lead the Colts to a 16-13 overtime win. It wasn't pretty, and the Jaguars in fact had plenty of chances to win it (kicker Jason Myers had chances to end the game but missed field goals in regulation and in overtime), but the Colts pulled out an early-season AFC South victory with their backup quarterback. It could only go up from there, right? Wrong.
After missing two games, Luck returned from his shoulder injury and started the next four games, but it didn't go as planned for Indianapolis as they went just 1-3 during the toughest stretch of their schedule. Then, after their biggest win of the year against the then-undefeated Broncos, it was revealed that Luck would again miss time with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle. So, once again, Matt Hasselbeck took over, and as the Colts enter Sunday's rematch with the Jaguars, it will again be the 40-year old veteran under center in a key AFC South matchup.
The Colts are 6-6 and hold a tiebreaker lead over the Houston Texans for first place in the division. The Colts and Texans will play in week 15, but first there's an important week 14 game in Jacksonville for the Colts. If things go according to plan and the Texans lose on Sunday night to the Patriots, the Colts could clinch the division simply by winning their next two games. Of course, that's easier said than done, as the Jaguars and then the Texans will both provide a tough test.
The Colts bring a 21-8 all-time record against the Jaguars into this Sunday's game (and a 10-4 road record), having won the past six matchups against Jacksonville. The Colts have won 16 games in a row against their division, an NFL record that they tied and then broke earlier this season. They will look to extend that record during the final few weeks of this season in some crucial games. Jacksonville has improved, though, and has a talented quarterback/wide receiver duo to account for in Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson. Here's a preview of the game, which is a key one for the Colts in the AFC South race.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Jaguars Defense
If it weren't for the Jaguars' defense, they would likely have a better record than 4-8, but that's where they are out because their defense hasn't produced like their offense has. Take last week, for example. The Jaguars put up 39 points against the Titans and lost because their defense gave up 42. For a Colts team that scored only ten points against the Steelers last week, that's a welcome sight. But at the same time, the Colts will need to play well to ensure that last week's struggles don't show up again this week. With Matt Hasselbeck hurting this week but expected to play, the Colts' offensive line becomes an even bigger focus. Ever since Hasselbeck took over at quarterback it was clear that he was going to need protection and time to throw, and for the most part the offensive line has given him that. Furthermore, the Colts ideally need to be able to run the ball to at least some success with their backup quarterback in the game, and they haven't been able to do so in recent weeks. That starts up front, with Anthony Castonzo once again out - meaning that Joe Reitz will be at left tackle again and Denzelle Good will be at right tackle again. The plays should be there for the Colts' offense to make, but they will need their offensive line to play well in order to give Hasselbeck time to throw, protect him, and open up some lanes in the running game (which should be there, as the last time Paul Posluszny missed a game for the Jaguars they gave up 183 rushing yards).
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Jaguars Offense
It's hard to imagine that the Colts' defense will overlook any team after last week's embarrassment in Pittsburgh, and they'd better not overlook the Jaguars offense - the best Jaguars offense that the Colts will have faced in quite a while. Blake Bortles has had a good year, completing 57.7% of his passes for 3,274 yards and 27 touchdowns (a franchise record) with 13 interceptions, good for a passer rating of 86.8. Allen Robinson is the first Jaguars receiver since 2005 to have a 1,000 yard season, having caught 65 passes for 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen Hurns also has a shot at getting to 1,000 yards this year, as he has caught 48 passes for 758 yards and seven scores on the season so far. Together, they have combined to produce 48 passing plays of 20+ yards. This Sunday, the Colts will face the test of slowing them down. That will involve their cornerbacks stepping up, but just like last week, it will involve their pass rush needing to step up. That didn't happen a week ago and as such it put the secondary in a tough position, and head coach Chuck Pagano acknowledged this week that the two go hand in hand. According to Pro Football Focus, as Blake Bortles has completed just 43.3% of passes under pressure this year for 842 yards (5.97 yards per attempt), five touchdowns, and five interceptions for a passer rating of 60.1. When not under pressure, Bortles has completed 63.9% of his passes for 2,432 yards (7.37 yards per attempt), 22 touchdowns, and eight interceptions for a passer rating of 98.2. It's true of all quarterbacks but perhaps especially for younger ones like Bortles: you need to get pressure. If the Colts can't do that, they'll leave their secondary out in coverage longer against two dangerous wide receivers, which would likely allow the Jaguars to put up some points.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts' offense should be able to get some things going against the Jaguars' defense, at least enough so to win if the defense does a solid job like they have for most of the season. Speaking of the defense, they have been pretty good overall in recent weeks, though the embarrassing performance against the Steelers will receive all of the attention. If the defense can find their form of the weeks leading up to that, however (against the Broncos, Falcons, and Buccaneers), they should be fine.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The Jaguars' offense is capable of putting up points, and if the Colts can't get pressure on Blake Bortles their cornerbacks will have a tough time keeping up with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Offensively, if Matt Hasselbeck is still off like he was last week they won't be able to get much done, and they can't count on Jason Myers to miss a couple of key field goals again.
This could be a typical trap game for the Colts, as they will face the Houston Texans next week in a game that could very well decide the AFC South, but the Jaguars present a tough challenge this week and shouldn't be overlooked. I don't see the Colts overlooking any opponent considering how badly they were beat last week, and I think that the offense (and Adam Vinatieri) will be able to rebound nicely and put up some points. As long as the defense gives them solid play, they should be able to win it, and I think that's what will happen.