The Last Step: Preview for the AFC South Championship Game

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In my game preview for the Raiders game I wrote that I was happy that the Colts defeated the Titans, because that means the Jaguars are just 3 steps away from becoming AFC South divisional champions. Since then, Jacksonville defeated Oakland 38-31 in one of the most entertaining games of the season and the only piece left to put it all on the line Sunday in Indianapolis was a Texans’ loss on Monday Night Football. Houston (in usual heartbreaking fashion) did just that, falling to the Ravens with interception returned for a touchdown on their first possession in overtime. With that game, the Jaguars have an extremely simple objective: win on Sunday in Indianapolis and become what almost no one thought they could be this year – the champions of the AFC South. A win guarantees not only a playoff berth, but at least one home playoff game, the first since the AFC title game in January 2000. It would also mean the first sweep of the Colts in the regular season.

These two teams could not be more mistmatched against each other; Indianapolis has the #1 ranked passing attack and will face the Jaguars’ #29 ranked pass defense that made Jason Campbell look like a Pro-Bowler. Meanwhile, the Jaguars running game is ranked 2nd in the NFL and has a three game streak of 200+ rushing yards and is drooling just thinking about the Colts’ historically awful run defense, which is also ranked #29th in the league. Both teams have a big-time offensive playmaker – Peyton Manning for Indianapolis, who finally had an interception-free game last week vs. the Titans, and Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, who has strung together six straight 100+ yards games and is now a legitimate candidate in MVP talks (though it looks to be a virtually certainty that Tom Brady will win that award). Each of these men are the most talked about and revered players in their respective cities and can singlehandedly turn the game in his team’s favor. They’ve been discussed plenty. So where are the factors outside of these two behemoths that will decide this game?

Let’s take a deeper look….

Why the Jaguars will win:

First of all, the Jaguars are not a one-dimensional team. We all know David Garrard’s strengths and weaknesses by now, but his corps of receivers has grown in number and effectiveness over the season – and finally they’re all healthy! He’s got Marcedes Lewis, who will likely break the single season receiving TD record, currently held by Reggie Williams with 10 scores back in 2007. He could easily have a big day, because the Colts’ safeties are playing like they’re in Jacksonville’s secondary lately. FS Anthony Bethea has had a very bad year and SS Aaron Fransisco, who started the year on the fourth-string, is really struggling. These are huge mismatches waiting to be exploited and the Jaguars receivers must take an advantage, especially the tight ends. Starting corners Jacob Lacey and Kelvin Hayden (and 3rd cornerback Justin Tryon, who’s played decently) are solid players, but if the Colts load the box against the Jaguars running backs, Mike Thomas, Jason Hill, and Mike Sims-Walker can take advantage of 1-on-1 situations against them.

If the Colts do emphasize coverage on the wideouts, MJD and his rapidly emerging backup, Rashad Jennings (and maybe Deji Karim/Greg Jones), can brutalize the Colts’ defense on the ground. Although the DTs: Fill Moala, Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir are not as bad as their meager statistics suggest, they aren’t scaring any teams from pounding up the middle. And in spite of solid veterans linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session (returning fresh from injury), there is a major weak link in Philip Wheeler (I don’t know why Pat Angerer doesn’t get more playing time there). Combined with the horrible situation at safety, the stage is set for the Jaguars’ RBs to pound all game long. The ground game and dominating time of possession is essential to keep Peyton Manning off the field, which is always the best defensive strategy against him. But these long drives cannot stall out for field goals; Jacksonville has to put up touchdowns because #18 can punish you with a long play at any time.

The Jaguars seem to also have a big advantage along the lines, especially the Jaguars defensive line versus the Colts offensive line. The Colts O-line is a mess right now, except for center Jeff Saturday –  and that was without any significant injuries. LT Charlie Johnson has been hurt and will likely miss this game, in which case UDFA rookie Jeffrey Linkenbach will take over. He’s not a bad player, but against a red-hot Jeremy Mincey, he might have a pretty tough afternoon. Beyond that, the offensive line is a wasteland – RT Ryan Diem is a weak player and always causes 1-2 penalties per game and the two guards spots have been a disaster, with a revolving-door approach. Mike Pollak, Kyle Devan, Jamey Richard and Linkenbach have all seen time there, but the Colts are yet to find an effective combination. Watch for Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton to have BIG games on Sunday.

Another advantage is that if Joseph Addai is unable to suit up, the Colts will be truly one-dimensional. I don’t know why Donald Brown was a 1st round pick, because he is terrible and his backup, Javarris James, is looking like the better back. If these two are the only ones representing the Colts running game, the Jags’ defense will have little challenge having played Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis, Ahmad Bradshaw/Brandon Jacobs, Chris Johnson, and Darren McFadden/Michael Bush in the last 5 weeks. Although the Giants RBs and McFadden were effective, I’m not about to consider Brown and James in the same category as them. One to two yards per carry average has been the norm (especially with Brown), which would allow the Jaguars to use more players in pass defense or to blitz Manning more aggressively. I prefer maximizing the coverage and hoping our lineman find a way to “hit home”.