Coming off of their 23-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins, the Indianapolis Colts (5-3) head to Florida for their first - and likely last - prime time game of the season as they take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football. On paper, the Colts appear set to win their fourth straight game run, their record to 6-3 on the season, and take one giant step towards securing a spot in the post-season.
But games aren't played on paper, and despite a clear advantage in offensive personnel - especially at quarterback - a lot of factors could cause Thursday night to shape up as a classic trap game for the Colts. Let's discuss the 5 reasons I believe the Jacksonville Jaguars will earn their second win of the season - both coming against the Colts - on Thursday, and deal a major blow to the Colts playoff hopes.
1. Injuries - Despite their 5-3 record and the fact that they have a good shot at making the playoffs, the truth is, the Colts aren't a very good football team. Built around a very top-heavy, "stars-and-scrubs" roster, the Colts succeed by getting great performances from their star players and hoping that the rest of their roster - which is filled with undrafted free agents and cast-offs - can over achieve.
This strategy, which has worked out thus far, is similar to the one employed by the Bill Polian/Peyton Manning Colts of yesteryear. And while this year's team has less star-caliber players than those teams did, their wins look eerily similar: amazing play from the quarterback, big games from Reggie Wayne and random no-name offensive players, and a bend-don't-break defense that manages to come up with timely stops at the end of games.
But with every passing week, injuries claim another name from the Colts pool of good players, reducing the talent they can put on the field and shrinking their margin of error. This week the Colts will likely be without TE Coby Fleener, CB Vontae Davis, CB Jerraud Powers, OLB Robert Mathis, C Samson Satele, OT Winston Justice, and RB Donald Brown. All of them are starters. Most of them are actually good.
The Colts are already a young, inconsistent team, who will struggle to put away even the worst NFL teams. The long list of injuries they've endured in recent weeks only complicates that task.
2. Their defense is bad - We touched on this in the injury section, but it bears repeating: the Colts defense, even when fully healthy, isn't very good. Missing Robert Mathis, Vontae Davis, Jerraud Powers, and DEFENSIVE SUPERSTAR Josh Chapman brings the squad down to putrid levels.
Over the course of the season, the defense has shown an inability to generate any consistent pass rush in the games that Mathis has missed due to injury. Blaine Gabbert isn't very good, but as we saw against New York, Cleveland, and Tennessee, not very good quarterbacks can still look pretty good when they have all the time in the world to throw the ball.
On the backend, the Colts will be using a Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn, and Josh Gordy trio to cover the Jacksonville receivers, or film a new Three Stooges web series, we're not sure which. While Davis and Powers have both had their struggles this year, both are far better than those three (please don't argue this point, Jerraud Powers didn't wake up a bad player, he's having a bout of bad-scheme-itis), which could lead to a downright ordinary group of Jaguars receivers having big days, especially when it comes to taking short throws and turning them into big plays.
The Colts coaches can help hide some of the defense's deficiencies by calling less blitzes - which expose them to bad 1-on-1 match ups - and calling more zone coverages, which will keep the play in front of them and them to make quick, sure tackles. But the biggest help the defense could receive could come from the offense, which has failed to provide the team with a 2-score lead since way back in week 3 against these Jaguars
3. Coaching - One of the best ways to overcome injuries, shaky defense, and prime time nerves is to score touchdowns, get a lead, and build that lead. While the Colts offense has been very good at moving the ball this year, featuring the 4th-best offense in yards-per-game, they manage to score only 19.9ppg (23rd).
Part of the reason for their low scoring output is the willingness of the coaching staff to settle for field goals in 4th-and-short situations deep in the opponent's territory. With an already thin defense even more depleted by injuries, the Colts coaches should be looking for every opportunity to give Luck and the Colts offense a chance to put a lot of points on the score board. This can help not only relax a young team, a two score (or more) lead can help the defense as well, by forcing the opposing offense to become a more one-dimensional, pass-heavy attack.
While it's yet to cost them in the win-loss column, you simply can't win consistently in the NFL by settling for field goals. If the Colts coaches can't get out of that mindset this week, they could find themselves staring at an 0-2 record against one of the worst teams in the NFL.
4. Away Team on Thursday Night Football - I've heard very few people - players, coaches, or fans - who actually like Thursday Night Football. We watch it, of course, because we love football and we just can't force ourselves to turn it off. Well not only is Thursday Night Football not the most enjoyable thing to watch, it's also not a situation conducive to good football.
Consider the following: with only three days between games, and three fewer days than you'd normally have on a Sunday-to-Sunday schedule, there is less time for injured players to recover. These injured players will either play with no practice time as they attempt to maximize their healing and recovery efforts, or, as is the case with many of the borderline Colts players this week, they will simply miss the game entirely rather than risk worsening a mostly minor injury. Moreover, the short schedule prevents as much practice and film study, which puts defenses at a disadvantage as they are unable to prepare for and identify all of the special wrinkles an offense will throw at them.
While these issues are bad enough in-and-of themselves, they are even worse for road teams, who have to fly out on a Wednesday afternoon, cutting their days of full practice down to 1. Combine the lack of practice and injury situation with the Colts youth and inexperience in prime time, and you have a recipe for disaster.
5. The Colts may be due for an emotional let down -By now, you've either seen Coach Pagano's emotional post game speech from Sunday, or you lack the technology required to be reading this blog, in which case I'm not even talking to you... wait, where were we?
And while the Colts ability to play and fight for a man they all clearly love and respect is admirable and inspirational, there is a very good chance that the very emotions that picked them up and helped them on Sunday could let them down and betray them Thursday night. We saw this in action earlier this season when the Colts, coming off of their amazing victory over the Packers, seemed to come out flat and drained against the New York Jets.
While it is possible the short week, the bright lights, and the fact that the Colts will be looking to avenge their week 3 loss could help keep the Colts energized and focused, there is also the chance the Colts once again come out flat against a bad team looking to give their home fans something to cheer about. Playing the Colts has become the Jaguars semi-annual Super Bowl, or SEC Championship if you wish to remain more regionally relevant - and they would like nothing more than to beat the Colts and throw a wrench in Indianapolis' playoff hopes.
Hopefully the Colts learned from their experiences in Week 5 and 6 and can make the proper adjustments to overcome the let down. Part of that job will fall on the shoulders of the veteran leadership and coaching staff, who need to step in and guide the ship. If they're unable to provide that support and guidance, the Colts could very well hit an ice berg - or a really big tarp - in EverBank Field.
And now for something totally different, the one reason the Colts could win despite all of that:
1. Andrew Luck - It seems bleak. How could the Colts possibly hope to win? Stop me if you heard this once or twice in the past decade: they have a really good quarterback who is able to perform at an extremely high level regardless of whatever odds are stacked against him. It's taken 8 whole games, but people - including myself - are finally starting to realize just how special Luck is and will be as he continues to progress and mature as an NFL player.
His 3rd-down performance on Sunday was more than masterful, it was the kind of rare dominance few NFL players reach in their entire careers. While those performances are rare and special, it's exactly the kind of performances the Colts are going to need from Luck week-in and week-out if they hope to continue this improbable run to the playoffs.
The highest praise I could possibly give him is this: like the man who came before him, I wouldn't bet against him pulling it off.