The Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts are each in control of their destiny in the AFC South. That will change after they meet Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Jaguars can clinch their first division title in 11 years if they can complete their first season sweep of the Colts, who would be on the brink of elimination from the postseason with a loss.
Jacksonville leads Indianapolis by one game in the South and will earn the title with a victory because the Jaguars won 31-28 in the first meeting at home Oct. 3. The Colts, though, would remain on course for their seventh South title with a win, since they hold the tiebreakers over the Jaguars (8-5) should they even the season series.
"Obviously, it’s a make it, take it kind of game," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "It’s like that old basketball game you used to play as a kid, right? So we have to get ourselves in position to score so that we can stay after our No. 1 goal."
The high stakes have resulted in some back and forth between the rivals. Colts running back Dominic Rhodes referred to the Jaguars as a "little brother" within the division, while Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio made a reference to the Colts (7-6) piping in noise into their stadium.
Jacksonville is 5-12 against Indianapolis since the division was formed in 2002, going 2-6 on the road. The Jaguars’ last title was a Central Division crown in 1999.
"No one’s been through a game like this for a while around here," running back Maurice Jones-Drew said.
Jacksonville’s 5-1 surge has been keyed by Jones-Drew and a rushing attack that has produced a league-best 193.0 yards per game in that span. Jones-Drew is second in the NFL with 1,278 rushing yards, including six straight 100-yard efforts for the first time.
"They’ve done a great job just in terms of putting together a real strong running attack," Caldwell said. "Obviously, Jones-Drew is a guy who can run it inside or outside, catch it on screens and make yards."
That strength coincides with a weakness for the Colts, whose run defense is allowing 141.1 yards per game for the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. Second-year running back Rashad Jennings has also emerged with 206 yards over the last three games to give Jacksonville over 200 rushing yards in each.
"Whenever you can have a two-headed monster like that, it definitely benefits you as a quarterback and as an offense," David Garrard said. "You can just hand it off and they can make plays for you, they can keep the chains moving, they can run 60, 70 yards and score a touchdown and make the game so easy for you."
Prior to this stretch for Jones-Drew, his lone 100-yard effort came in the victory over the Colts. He’s averaging 98.1 yards in nine games against Indianapolis.
The Colts, in contrast, rank last in rushing with 79.7 yards per game but want to fare better Sunday to take the pressure off of Peyton Manning. He bounced back from throwing 11 interceptions during a three-game slide to throw two touchdowns with no interceptions last Thursday in a 30-28 victory at Tennessee.
The defending AFC champions have reached the playoffs every season since the South was created. A loss Sunday would put them close to elimination.
"That’s something we’d certainly like to avoid," Manning said.
Top running back Joseph Addai has missed seven straight games with a nerve injury in his left shoulder, and receiver Austin Collie has played in one quarter over the last five games because of a concussion. It seems likely that Rhodes will see his first action since Dec. 18, 2008, for Indianapolis.
Collie made it through a full practice Wednesday while Addai did limited work.
The Jaguars concede that the Colts have more experience in big games. Indianapolis, however, has rarely been in this position of having to keep its playoff hopes alive late in the season.
"You can put it anyway you want it," Manning said. "This is a playoff game."