After the emotional high of beating the Miami Dolphins and celebrating with ailing coach Chuck Pagano, the Indianapolis Colts are back to reality in a hurry.
Road game tonight. Prime time. They've taken their bumps, bruises and battered secondary to Jacksonville.
It could be a fourth-straight win, the first significant streak of the new-era Colts. Or it could be a massive letdown on a big stage.
“We have to learn from the last time we had an emotional win,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “We got our brains beat out. I'll remind them of that.”
Arians alludes to the Colts' home upset win over Green Bay, which was followed by a shellacking on the road to the New York Jets. It's a valid point to stress, making sure the Colts maintain their urgency and concentration rather than basking in their current status as the NFL's national feel-good story.
“The short weeks are always tough on both teams, especially the one that's traveling,” Arians said. “It's not a physical week. It's all a mental week.”
I'd suggest the Colts' mental state might just give them the edge.
The Jaguars are in the midst of a disappointing 1-7 season, with the “1” being the win they snatched in stunning fashion in Indianapolis with Blaine Gabbert's 80-yard touchdown pass to Cecil Shorts III with 45 seconds left in the game.
The Colts (5-3) are 4-1 since that game, with Andrew Luck coming into his own as an NFL quarterback with a passing game that ranks among the league's best.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, will be without Maurice Jones-Drew, the running back built to torture the Colts defense.
An improved Colts offense, a lessened Jacksonville offense and an edge of payback mentality all appears to favor the Colts.
“I've always equated this game to white-water rafting,” Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. “If you can get out in the same river 10 different times, it's 10 different rides.”
Fortunately for the Colts, the approach is far from complicated. The offense needs to continue to establish the kinds of drives that eat clock and result in touchdowns. Luck needs more of the 13-of-17 third-down passing excellence he displayed against the Dolphins. A little more help from the running game of Vick Ballard and Delone Carter (Donald Brown is questionable to play) would be a nice bonus.
Defensively, the Colts need to pressure Blaine Gabbert and try not to leave an inexperienced secondary (Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler are in for injured Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers) exposed to big plays.
“Them being a division opponent, they know us and we know them,” Colts rush end Dwight Freeney said. “I don't care what their record is, it's always going to be some type of battle, some type of fight and that's just them. They're tough. They're blue collar. They work hard. Their record doesn't show it, but it's always a good game.”
A win for the Colts would have significant ramifications. Indianapolis would be 6-3 heading into a road game at New England, a game that has been flexed to a 4:25 p.m. start time because the NFL is itching to move Indianapolis back into a more visible spot again.
A win would also keep alive the playoff dreams that don't seem quite as farfetched as they did when this season opened with new players, a new coaching staff and question marks all around.
A second loss to the lowly Jaguars would dampen enthusiasm considerably.
“If we don't get their best shot, I'll be shocked,” Arians said.
This will be Luck's prime-time debut. If he delivers his best shot, it could be the first of many to come.