INDIANAPOLIS – I'm emphasizing the negative as the Indianapolis Colts prepare for their Sunday afternoon game at Jacksonville. This game is about “can't.”
The Colts can't take a step back. They can't play down to the level of their competition. They can't fiddle around and require a fourth-quarter comeback. They can't lose the momentum of the huge win at San Francisco.
We all know the NFL is a quirky league. The difference in talent from team to team isn't all that much, thanks to the salary cap and other factors. A team can look like world-beaters one week and ordinary the next. Yet there comes a point where true Super Bowl contenders have to make super statements.
The Colts need to beat down the Jags.
They need to speed into Jacksonville, slam on the accelerator all afternoon and do donuts in the EverBank Field parking lot afterward.
You build on the win over the 49ers by crushing the Jags.
“Certainly we have a blueprint now that they can work from and build on and not deviate nd not stray away from and stick to the process, stick to preparation,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “They understand that they have to go execute the game plan week in and week out. They understand that it's about us and not necessarily our opponent.
“Everybody is good,” Pagano continued. “Every Sunday you're going to play a damn good football team.”
I understand Pagano's viewpoint. Even the worst NFL teams have incredible athletes and as a coach, he cannot afford to characterize an opponent with anything less than full respect. But I wouldn't call Jacksonville “damn good.” I'd call them lousy. And the Colts can't afford to mess around with lousy.
The Jaguars have a quarterback who has missed the last two games with a cut on his hand. They have been outscored 92-28 in three games. The Jags rank last in the NFL in points per game, offensive yards per game and rushing allowed per game.
They're lousy and one decent team (the Chiefs in a 28-2 win) and one great team (the Seahawks in a 45-17 win) have exposed that lousiness.
It's the Colts' turn now, and if they are the team that whipped the 49ers, they need to reemphasize that Sunday.
“Last year, I spent a little time talking to Reggie (Wayne) and the guys about the history between the teams and what games are like,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. “I remember him talking about Jacksonville, saying it's always a fight. Tough team. Tough players. You see that on film this year. Those guys are tough. They play hard every snap. We're going to have to come ready for a fight.”
One of Luck's best attributes is that level-headed knowledge, the wisdom not to take anything for granted. Like the great Peyton Manning before him, Luck is big on homework, big on studying film and every aspect of preparation.
This game is a big one for Luck to continue to operate the offense with the right mixture of aggression and caution. As much as it has taken fans time to get used to the Colts putting an emphasis on the power-running game, Luck has embraced it fully. He's not a guy who worries about statistics other than the final score. That said, he has the competitive gene that great quarterbacks always possess.
Luck and the offense need to establish control early. They need to take an early 10-14 point lead and build on it. The offensive line was outstanding against the 49ers. That needs to build again this week with center Samson Satele returning to the lineup. Running back Trent Richardson has another week in the Colts system, so he should be more familiar with the team, scheme and plays. Ahmad Bradshaw is out with a neck injury, so Richardson will carry an even heavier load.
Given the fact the Jags rank 10th in passing yards allowed per game – one of their few strengths – the Colts will need to establish tone with their running game to set up the pass.
On defense, the Colts have to slow their long-time tormenter, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He's made a nice living out of gouging the Colts, but that was the old defense. If Jacksonville is smart, and that's a big if, they'll try to ride Jones-Drew. The 49ers had success with Frank Gore and abandoned it too soon.
Jones-Drew will get some yards. That's what he does. But the Colts defense has to make him grind them out, not rip them off in 15- and 18-yard chunks.
The Colts coaching staff put mouse traps in the locker room this week, a subtle hint that this could be a “trap game,” if the players are overconfident and looking ahead to a home date against the Seahawks next week.
These Colts are smart enough to recognize the task ahead. They're smart enough to know this is a must-win game. The strides made in San Francisco will be negated if the Colts regress.
They can't go to Jacksonville and lose if they're serious about being an elite team.