EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The AFC South is up for grabs and the Indianapolis Colts are hanging in despite an up-and-down season.
The playoff run begins now for Andrew Luck and Co., with a game Monday night against the lowly New York Jets, who are simply playing out the string in a disappointing season.
Not that the Colts (5-6) are taking the Jets (3-8) lightly. They can't afford to, not with Houston (6-5) and Tennessee (6-6) ahead of them in the standings entering this weekend.
“This isn't a deal where you sit there and hope and pray that something else happens,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “You have to control what you can control and we can control how we handle ourselves. … It's going to be a huge challenge: on the road, hostile environment, you have weather, crowd noise, you have elements, you have environment, you have all that stuff that you have to deal with.
“Again, there is nothing better than being on that stage and we have to do our part in preparation to get ready to play a good football game.”
After a 28-7 loss to Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, the Colts will have Luck back under center after he missed the game with a concussion and was replaced by Scott Tolzien. Luck returned to full practice activity earlier in the week and needed only to be cleared by an independent doctor to play Monday night.
“Sitting and watching is no fun,” Luck said. “Playing is fun. Practicing is fun. Winning is fun.”
That's something the Jets haven't done much of this season, although coach Todd Bowles insists that remains the focus for his team. That's why he's starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback this week despite a growing sentiment that New York should see what it has in Bryce Petty, who was so-so in a spot start three weeks ago when the veteran sat out with a sprained knee.
While the Jets are all but assured missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season, they are aiming for a strong finish.
“We're all trying to win every game,” Bowles said, “whether we're trying to get to 8-8 or whether we're trying to be 16-0.”
Here are some other things to know as the Colts and Jets prepare to face each other on Monday night:
LIGHTS OUT: The Colts were once a good bet in prime-time games. Not anymore.
Indy has lost five straight games and seven of the last eight it has played under the lights. The list includes a Thanksgiving night loss to Pittsburgh last week and a defeat in September 2015 to the Jets. And the Colts are just 3-9 in prime time since January 2011.
MARSHALL PLAN: Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught a 1-yard TD pass against the Patriots last week , his first score since Oct. 9 at Pittsburgh — a span of five games without reaching the end zone.
He's having a down year statistically with 49 catches for 668 yards and three touchdowns, far off his pace from last season when he had a franchise-record 109 receptions for 1,502 yards and 14 TDs.
Still, Marshall is moving up the career lists. He needs 59 yards receiving to become the 25th player in NFL history with 12,000. Marshall also has seven career 100-yard receiving performances on “Monday Night Football,” one behind Tim Brown and Andre Reed for third place all-time.
FANTASTIC FRANK: Colts running back Frank Gore has been passing familiar faces on the NFL's career rushing list all season. On Monday night, he can do it again.
Gore needs 30 yards rushing to move past Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett (12,739) for No. 8. He has already passed five Hall of Famers this year: Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk and Jim Brown. He also passed old friend Edgerrin James, one of the three non-Hall of Famers to appear in the top 15. The others: LaDainian Tomlinson, who will be eligible for induction next year, and Gore.
THE LINE: The Jets have three first-rounders on their defensive line in Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, so the Colts' continually changing offensive line may face its most difficult task all season.
The good news: center Ryan Kelly and right guard Denzelle Good have practiced this week, so the Colts may not need to piece together their seventh different starting line this season.
The bad news: Indy has given up 38 sacks in 11 games, the second-highest total in the league.
TIGHT ENDS BREAK OUT: Chan Gailey hasn't used tight ends much in the passing game in his two seasons as the Jets' offensive coordinator, with New York getting just eight receptions (Jeff Cumberland, five; Kellen Davis, three) last year.
It was much of the same until last week, when Brandon Bostick had two and Austin Seferian-Jenkins one — giving the Jets a whopping seven from the position this season. The three catches were the most New York has gotten from the position since Cumberland had three against New England on Dec. 21, 2014.