Colts, Jaguars Attempt Calm Approach to Late-Season Showdown
INDIANAPOLIS – Antoine Bethea won't say this one is completely normal.
Bethea, the Colts' two-time Pro Bowl safety, said while there was no difference in the Colts' approach this week, the reality was there was a different feel.
And Bethea said that's only normal.
It's Jaguars-Colts week, and while that usually has meant dramatic, memorable games in recent seasons, this season there's perhaps something more at stake:
The AFC South title.
"It's a little bit more intense," Bethea said as the Colts (7-6) prepared to play the AFC South-leading Jaguars (8-5) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.
"At the same time, you try to keep level-headed. You don't want to get too high or too low. It's not a regular game, but you don't want to get too overly excited early in the week.
"Come Sunday, we'll all be ready to play."
Such was the tone not only around the Colts, but around the Jaguars this week. Yes, players and coaches from each team said, the game was unquestionably big.
And yes, there will be en energy Sunday.
But the focus for players and coaches from each team was approaching the game calmly and on an even keel – until game day.
"We're professional football players," Jaguars quarterback David Garrard said. "You put yourself in this position to be able to have this chance. We have it, but there's no blowing things out of perspective. You've got to still focus on preparation, have your teammates back, and just go out and play.
"Just go out and try to execute and try to have fun because this is really what you play for, these situations."
The situation for each team is clear:
The Jaguars, who never have won the AFC South in its previous eight seasons of existence, and haven't won a division title since winning the AFC Central in 1998 and 1999, can clinch the division with a victory Sunday. They last made the playoffs in 2007.
The Colts, who have won six of the past seven AFC South titles, can win the division by winning their final three games. They play host to Jacksonville Sunday, visit Oakland (6-7) the following week then finish the regular season with a home game against Tennessee (5-8).
If the Jaguars and Colts finish tied at 10-6, the Colts will win the South because of a better record against common opponents.
The Colts have made the post-season an NFL-best eight consecutive seasons.
"All I know is this game is like a playoff game, as was last week, and that's really how it needs to be treated," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's an extremely imant game for both teams. Jacksonville is playing with a lot of momentum and that's really all we're thinking about at this point. We're trying to play well this week against a good team."
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said while Sunday's game isn't quite a post-season game, it's close enough.
"We have to have that mentality, because of what's at stake," Freeney said. "I can't really say it's a playoff game, because playoff is something completely different – special – but definitely this game is important. Obviously, we have to win this game, so it does have a little playoff element to it."
And while the Colts' situation of being a game over .500 and a game behind in December is unusual for a team that won five of its AFC South titles by leading start to finish, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said such thoughts mean little this week.
"We're obviously a team fighting for a life and getting ready to face a good football team," Caldwell said.
Caldwell spoke this week of navigating where you are, not where you want to be, and said the only scenario that matters is the Colts having control of their destiny. Manning agreed.
"It's very much an 'in the moment' type of week with the way the division has been so competitive," Manning said. "We certainly feel fortunate to be playing a game with this much meaning this week. Usually at 7-6, you're probably way behind the eight-ball but because our division has been so competitive – Houston, Tennessee, Colts, and the Jaguars, everybody's kind of beaten one another.
"It is close and it is going down to the wire. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity, and we just want to take advantage of it and hopefully play well."
The teams arrived at the crucial December meeting from different paths.
The Colts, after starting the season 5-2, negotiated a slew of injuries in November and early December, beating the Tennessee Titans last week to end their first three-game losing streak since 2002.
The Jaguars, after starting the season 3-4 with each of those losses by 22 or more points, have won five of their last six games to take the lead in the AFC South in December for the first time. Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has rushed for more than 100 yards in six consecutive games,
"We're very confident," Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "You can see it in every guy in the locker room. Every guy is confident. We feel good about this week. Nobody is hyped or scared in any manner. "It's the biggest game I've ever played. We're on a big stage. Our team is doing really well right now. With all of the ups and downs we've had this year, we've started to weed out all of the kinks and all of the bad things and starting to get on the same page."
And while the Colts typically have played late-season games with playoff seedings clinched in recent seasons, Manning and Freeney each said this week it's not as if the Colts lack experience in big games. And it's not as if they haven't won big games late in the season.
"I think people think we haven't played any meaningful games in December, and that's just not true," Manning said. "We've had a lot of important games throughout the month of December that have been for either the division, or just to stay alive for home field – or whatever it may be.
"We've always had important games."
Said Bethea, "We know what it is. But at the same time, I don't think you want to get too antsy or get too agitated and you go out there and be a nervous wreck. Big-time players show up in big-time games.
"That's when the big-time players have to do what they do – really not do anything special, but make plays, have fun and help your team do what you have to do get a 'W.'"