INDIANAPOLIS – On Wednesday of this week, Colts players return to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center to prepare for the next game of the season.
Many people can say as well that this is the last game of the season. While those observers would be correct, Head Coach Jim Caldwell and his charges hold the view that Sunday's game at Jacksonville rates more as the next game than the final one of the season.
"Maybe from (others') point of view (it's the last game), but it's kind of one and the same for us at this point," said Caldwell. "It is the last game of the year, (there's) no question about that. Yet, also, it can be used as stepping stones and launch into the off-season and those kinds of things. There are a lot of different things you can talk about in terms of this ballgame. For us, it's the next one. What we're trying to do and we've been trying to do is get incrementally better, just a little bit better each and every week."
Indianapolis long has approached games as a weekly entity, viewing nothing but the immediate task at hand. The club has sported the incremental improvement in its last two games that Caldwell preaches.
The Colts have improved by knocking off AFC South teams with the two best records, Houston and Tennessee. In a five-day span starting on December 18, Indianapolis bettered the Titans, 27-13, and Texans, 19-16, in Lucas Oil Stadium. The victories pushed the Colts' all-time record in the AFC South to 44-15, the best among division members.
Indianapolis will be taking its two-game winning streak on the road this week to Jacksonville, and Caldwell looks for the incremental progress to continue. He contends his players are accomplishing that mission..
"I think our guys have been doing that," said Caldwell. "This one also will be a challenge to get just a little bit better this week. I think that's indeed the key (for us). We're going to face an opponent that's doing the exact, same thing. They're fighting and scratching and still playing tough, hard-nosed football."
Indianapolis and Jacksonville each will be looking for a third divisional victory this season. Jacksonville will be coming off a 23-17 loss at Tennessee last Sunday. Behind rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and running back Maurice Jones-Drew (24 rushes, 103 yards, one touchdown), the Jaguars stayed close throughout the game, cutting the deficit to six points with four minutes to go. Jacksonville, however, could not stop Tennessee's last drive and had no further chance to earn the win.
Indianapolis produced its seasonal-best point total in defeating Tennessee, then waged a spirited contest with Houston which it won at the end. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky directed the Colts 78 yards in the last 1:50, scoring with 19 seconds to go when he and wide receiver Reggie Wayne connected on a one-yard touchdown pass.
These teams met in Indianapolis on November 13, with Jacksonville posting a 17-3 victory. The Colts lead the series since 2002 Realignment, 13-6. In the teams' past 16 meetings, 12 have been decided by one possession. Indianapolis has won four of the past six encounters. Six of the last eight games have been decided by seven points or less.
Some of the leading figures in the first meeting this year have changed. Orlovsky has moved past Curtis Painter as the starting quarterback for Indianapolis. Jacksonville interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker succeeded Jack Del Rio after the team opened 3-8. Tucker has guided Jacksonville to a 1-3 record since taking the reins. The victory was a 41-14 verdict over Tampa Bay.
Caldwell sees Jacksonville as the same difficult opponent the Colts have known for years.
"They still are a talented team that has good, young players and the leading rusher in the league (Maurice Jones-Drew)," said Caldwell. "They're still playing good, solid defense. Oftentimes you can see in the games, it's about that much (one-inch) difference between ending up on the positive or negative side of the ledger. They're still just as dangerous in every, single phase (of the game). I think they've gotten better, to be honest with you.
"They're playing well. I've always thought they've played hard and played well. We've had trouble with them year in and year out. I don't think this game is going to be any different. I still think they're playing good football."
Maurice Jones-Drew presents the typical formidable challenge as he has been in the past. The sixth-year back rushed 25 times for 114 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting between the teams this year. His 1,437 yards lead NFL rushers, while marking a career seasonal-best. It also is the fourth consecutive year Jones-Drew has topped 1,300 rushing yards.
In 11 career outings against Indianapolis, he has 205 rushes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. His rushing yards are the fifth-most by any back against the Colts, while only seven performers ever have topped 1,000 rushing yards against the club. Jones-Drew can become the fifth back ever to tally double-digit rushing touchdowns against the Colts, and his six 100 games tie for third-most ever against the Colts.
"He's extremely tough, that's the thing that jumps out at you," said Caldwell. "He just keeps going. Obviously, he's leading the league in rushing right now for a reason. He's durable. He's tough. He's tenacious. All the skills that God has gifted him with in terms of his balance, power and speed, he can catch out of the backfield. He's a tough, tough competitor."
There will be approximately 90 players competing on the field Sunday. For the 45 men for Indianapolis, it will mean something.
"That (a division game) means a lot," said safety Antoine Bethea. "We play those teams twice a year. You get to know the players on the other teams. Each game really is like a rivalry. You want to win those games and sort of get the bragging rights going into the next year. Regardless of the records, you want to win those games. Every team in the division has a healthy respect for the other (AFC South) teams. We go in every game knowing it will be a hard-fought battle. We want to end on a good note."
For Caldwell, every Sunday is important. This Sunday is, too, because division games stand out a little bit more than others on the schedule.
"We make that a big point of emphasis early on," said Caldwell of competing well in the division. "Simply because we're not playing for a berth in the playoffs this time, it doesn't make this game any less important. They (division games) certainly do carry a little extra edge. There's always something at stake when you're playing in the division, because they are guys we play twice a year. There is a competitive desire there among both teams to win. They are very important to us."