While the Colts remain squarely in must-win territory if they hope to make the playoffs, the next two weeks carry an even greater significance. Division games on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans could relieve a little pressure down the stretch. Two wins and a Texans loss to the Browns would give the Colts the lead in the division with two non-conference home games and a road season finale against the Titans to wrap up the season.
2018 has been a disastrous year for the Jaguars. Less than a year removed from a visit to the AFC Championship Game, Jacksonville has fired its offensive coordinator, benched its starting quarterback, placed its biggest free agent signing on injured reserve and watched its best offensive player miss much of the season due to nagging injury. If that wasn’t enough, that same player chose to come off the bench to participate in a ridiculous scuffle against the Buffalo Bills, leaving the the Jaguars without him once again. Oh yeah, the team’s best defensive player has seemingly been suffering from some kind of mental breakdown and has not been nearly as dominant in his third season.
The Colts are on the opposite trajectory. Somehow, Andrew Luck has rebounded from shoulder surgery, and nearly two years away from football, to have perhaps his most impressive season yet. The team’s Achilles heel, its offensive line has gone from one of the worst units in the NFL to arguably one of the best. T.Y. Hilton has had back-to-back 100+ yard receiving games and Eric Ebron continues his incredible touchdown pace, and is in the midst of the best season of his career. Second round draft pick Darius Leonard has filled in at the team’s weakest position heading into the 2018 off-season. He is squarely in the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year and has a fighter’s chance to be considered for Defensive Player of the Year.
Simply put, the Colts cannot exit this game looking for excuses. With that in mind, here are the keys to the game.
WIN UP FRONT
In their first meeting this year, the Colts offensive line was able to shutout the Jaguars pass rush. Impressive given that Jacksonville had 10 sacks in just one game a season ago. Last week, the line gave up its first sack in over five weeks against the Miami Dolphins. However, another would-be sack didn’t count due to a defensive penalty in the secondary. Also, it was clear that Luck was under considerably more pressure than he had been in weeks.
Part of the reason for the struggles is that starting center Ryan Kelly has been forced to miss time with a knee injury. No specific timetable has been set for his return but in his absence, Evan Boehm has had to step in to fill the role. Another reason was that rookie Braden Smith struggled to contain rushers on the edge.
Both players will need to play at a higher level if they expect to keep Luck clean against the Jaguars. Miami’s defensive line is respectable but Jacksonville’s investment on defense is stunning. This franchise has been embarrassed and gone through a great deal of turmoil. At some point, players are going to want to make a statement. The Colts offensive line will need to be ready to make sure that statement doesn’t come up front.
Typically, when teams play their backup quarterback it is because they have no choice. If you ask the front office in Jacksonville, they will probably tell you that they feel like they are in that situation now. Don’t get me wrong, starter Blake Bortles is healthy, but one can go only so long before making a change.
Strangely, the Colts have found ways to make average or bad quarterbacks look like superstars. This is a phenomenon that has been going on for years. Bortles has a history of feasting on the Colts. Backup quarterbacks have a ridiculously high success rate.
The defense cannot allow Kessler to pick it apart. The bend but don’t break style the Colts play can allow signal callers to find a rhythm. Indianapolis must find a way to break that rhythm and keep Kessler uncomfortable.
MAINTAIN BALANCE ON OFFENSE
One thing that seems absolutely certain is that the Colts are poised to score more than the Jaguars. It is why they are clear favorites to win. The Jaguars have not been particularly good at putting the ball in the end zone all season. If the defense can limit big plays and force Kessler to make a ton of attempts, mistakes could happen.
If the Colts get a lead, it is important that they can maintain balance. This doesn’t mean that they need to go to vanilla play-calling, as Reich has a habit of doing on occasion, but offensive balance results in keeping a defense off-balance. It also results in eating up clock and giving your defense a chance to catch their breath on the sideline.
No huddle, aggressive play-calling and blinding pace can remain — even as the offense chews up clock on the ground. Get the Jaguars defensive line tired and keep it that way. It will take balance to get this done.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
While this is a key to the outcome of any game, it matters even more on the road in the division. There cannot be backbreaking turnovers that end offensive drives and give the Jaguars great field position. Luck needs to protect the ball and make sure he doesn’t repeat his back-to-back interception glitch from last week. Ball carrier need to secure the ball above all else.
The only way a lower scoring offense can hope to win the game is to gain extra possessions. This means that goal number one on offense is to be balanced and score more points. Goal number one, b is to protect the ball and not give Jacksonville extra chances.
CATCH THE DAMN BALL
Turnovers aren’t the only drive killers. If Indianapolis finds itself in more of a dogfight than it imagined, nothing will be more important than making sure to sustain drives and avoid self-inflicted mistakes. Too often this season Colts fans have watched as wide open receivers have allowed the ball to bounce off of their hands and fall to the ground (or into the hands of a defender) on what would have otherwise been a big play or at least a first down. These momentum killers stall offensive drives and breed punts and poor field position.
Andrew Luck will be without one of his most reliable targets in tight end Jack Doyle. The ramifications of losing Doyle will be multiple. Who will Luck turn to in his absence? Whoever it is, he needs to catch the ball.