|GAME OF THE WEEK: AFC South title could be at stake when Colts, Jags renew rivalry|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 29 November 2007 11:00|
Yes, it's only December, and yes, it's only for the lead in the AFC South.
But everything else seems tailor-made for postseason hype. There's Jacksonville's four-year quest to dethrone the Colts as division champs; the potential postseason implications; and the rivalry that has become one of the NFL's fiercest intradivision clashes.
``It's right there in front of us,'' Taylor said. ``The Colts have been the beast in this division and are even the Super Bowl champs, and I think the stage is set right now, because in the past we were always a number of games behind them after the 12th game of the season.''
Not this time.
The Jaguars (8-3) head into Sunday's marquee matchup just one game behind the four-time division champs with a chance to grab a share of the division lead.
They have a healthy quarterback who has yet to throw an interception this season, a solid two-pronged running attack with the rejuvenated Taylor and the emerging Maurice Jones-Drew, and a defense regarded as one of the NFL's best even without injured linebacker Mike Peterson (hand) and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.
Stroud will miss his fourth consecutive game after being suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Perhaps the most important trait is that Jacksonville has not endured its typical post-Colts blues this year.
In past seasons, the Jags' chase has always been derailed by what has followed Indy. A year ago, after losing at Indy in September, they lost at Washington. And after routing the Colts 44-17 in December, the Jags closed out a promising season with three straight losses that kept them out of the playoffs.
The results suggest Jacksonville has always treated Indy games like the playoffs, so Taylor has spent this week trying to help his teammates find that balance.
``There's no reason to go out and rah-rah your way to victory,'' he said. ``You've got to get out there, get on edge and sometimes you get so anxious that you miss assignments. So you have to pace yourself accordingly.''
The Colts (9-2) have been there before as the chaser.
Indy's first nemesis in the Peyton Manning era was Tennessee, a foe that inflicted a playoff loss in January 2000, then swept the first season series in 2002 before Indy turned the tables and won four straight division crowns.
Then came New England, which was 10-2 and posted six straight wins against Manning's Colts before Indy turned that around in 2005.
But the Jacksonville-Indy series has always had a different feel.
The Jags have often made mistakes and occasionally lost their composure to help the Colts dominate the series. Indy is 8-3 since the two became division rivals in 2002.
While some believe this may be the most important game of coach Jack Del Rio's tenure, the Colts consider this as their biggest game of the year so far. The reason: a win gives them essentially a three-game lead because of tiebreakers, courtesy of a season sweep of Jacksonville, with four games left.
``If we win this game, it would really take a monumental disaster for us not to win our division,'' coach Tony Dungy said. ``If we don't win this game, then it's going to be a dogfight the last four weeks of the year.''
Indy understands the longer term consequences, too.
A year ago, after starting 9-0, the Colts lost four of six and wound up losing a first-round bye. This year, after failing to close out New England on Nov. 9, they likely gave up a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Colts must continue winning games to avoid playing in the wild-card round for a second straight year.
``It's a big game for both teams, similar to the game we played down there on Monday night,'' tight end Dallas Clark said, referring to the Colts' 29-7 win. ``So we've got to do a good job matching that intensity and do our job.''
The Colts' problem in recent weeks has been sluggish starts.
Riddled by injuries and with the prospect of playing yet another week without perennial Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison (bruised left knee), Indy has not been as efficient on offense and instead relied on its improved defense to keep the scores close.
And the Colts are hoping this extended late-season break - they have not played since Thanksgiving - will not only help them get some players back, but also will get them back in sync to make another late-season charge.
``We knew when the schedule came out that the first three division games were on the road and the last three were all in December and at home with more on the line,'' Manning said. ``It's going to be a tough test for us.''
But for the Jags, the test is more about wills.
Before previous games, they've often provided bulletin-board material for the Colts, so this week they're focusing more on shutting up, winning and making the playoffs.
``Right now, we're not really worried about making statements or making proclamations,'' Del Rio said. ``We're really just concerning ourselves with preparing to do the best we can do and go out there and have a little fun and rip it up. It's a big game.''