The record isn’t as eye-catching as usual. The injuries that have depleted the roster are even uglier.
But this hasn’t changed: The Indianapolis Colts control the AFC South.
The Jacksonville Jaguars could have clinched the division with a win Sunday inside Lucas Oil Stadium. But as battered and bruised as the Colts are, their pride is healthier than ever.
“There’s no way we wanted them to celebrate on our field,” Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said after his team’s 34-24 victory. “We wanted them to pack them (AFC South championship) hats back up.”
The boxes of lids are returning to Jacksonville – as well as a Jaguars team that lost their heads in too many key situations.
The Jaguars (8-6) squandered the chance to claim their first division title since 1999 with poor defense, a botched goal-line opportunity and three critical second-half errors that Indianapolis (8-6) converted into 13 points. The final gaffe came with 1:54 remaining when Indianapolis linebacker Tyjuan Hagler scooped up a Jaguars onside kick attempt and returned it 41 yards untouched for the game-clinching touchdown.
“We left a lot of plays out there,” Jaguars wide receiver/punt returner Mike Thomas said. “It was right there for us to take. We just weren’t able to finish the deal.”
But to say the Jaguars blew this game wouldn’t be giving the Colts enough credit. This matchup was won largely with Indianapolis doing what it usually can’t – rushing the football and stopping the run.
The Colts limited Jags star running back Maurice Jones-Drew to 46 yards on 15 attempts, including two carries that lost three yards after Jacksonville had a first-and-goal from the Indianapolis 1-yard line. Ultimately forced to settle for a second-quarter field goal, the Jaguars finished with only 67 yards on 22 rushes.
“[The Colts] heard all week how they couldn’t stop our running game,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “I thought they did a pretty good job.”
The same applies for the output from what was the NFL’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack. Indianapolis’ Donald Brown had a third-quarter scoring run of 43 yards and another 49-yard jaunt in the first quarter to set up another touchdown. Considered a 2009 first-round bust to this point, Brown finished with 129 yards to become the first Colts running back to break the century mark since 2007. Such production helped keep Jacksonville’s defense off-balance, as quarterback Peyton Manning completed 29 of 39 attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns through extensive use of a short passing game.
It also was appropriate that two areas where the Colts have struggled would help salvage one of the strangest seasons in Manning’s 13-year NFL career.
Indianapolis usually has the AFC South title already clinched by now. At this point last year, the big debate was whether the 14-0 Colts would try in earnest for a perfect season or rest starters for the playoffs.
Indianapolis middle linebacker Gary Brackett said losing four of five games between Weeks 9 and 13 caused the 2010 Colts to enter “playoff mode. We lose and we’re home.”
“Most of our players have probably not been in this situation,” said Manning, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2001. “It’s what most teams have to deal with year in and year out. I don’t think winning 12 games how many years we’ve done it is the least bit normal. It’s not. It’s very special. I’ve never taken that for granted.
“This is more of a normal football season. You win some, you lose a couple in a row. Hopefully, we can get back on a win streak toward the end of the season. It’s different than what most guys are used to, but I think it’s normal football.”
Still, the volume of injuries that have struck the Colts is highly unusual. The latest casualty is wide receiver Austin Collie, who suffered his second concussion of the past six weeks in the second quarter when hit with a forearm to the helmet by Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith. Collie, who was torching the Jags with eight catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, didn’t return. He sat dazed on the same sideline that already featured other missing standout offensive talents like tight end Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai.
“At kickoff time, it’s trying to go and win with whoever is out there,” said Manning, who has completed passes to 15 different receivers in 14 games. “It’s been different guys. We’ve probably had different starting lineups each week.”
And yet the Colts can still capture the AFC South by winning next Sunday at Oakland and Jan. 2 against visiting Tennessee by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over the Jaguars.
“We wanted to go out and show that there’s no quit in us,” Wayne said. “We’re still going to fight every game no matter what the situation is.”
That in itself is helping to make what at one point was considered a lost year into a potentially memorable one.
“A lot of people want to write us off, but we’re here,” Brackett said. “We’re going to keep on playing.”