Colts 26, Jaguars 18
It was billed all week as the Jacksonville Jaguars' biggest home game since they lost the 1999 AFC championship game, but the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts played with a far greater sense of urgency and history Sunday at Alltel Stadium. With a 26-18 triumph, they also clinched the AFC South title, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with their 13th straight victory.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning connected on his first six passes in the Colts' opening 89-yard touchdown drive, "setting the tone," he said later, and also silencing the sellout crowd of 67,164 for most of the afternoon until the Jaguars (9-4) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Manning also completed the last of the 36 passes he attempted, a 12-yard first-down strike to tight end Dallas Clark on third and seven with 1 minute 18 seconds left in the game that allowed the Colts to keep the ball, kill the clock and push them a step closer toward matching the 1972 Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins, at 17-0, as the NFL's only two undefeated teams.
The Colts faced minimal resistance until the final five minutes while at the same time ending the Jaguars' five-game winning streak. The '72 Dolphins won all 14 regular season games in '72, and the Colts can match that start with a victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in Indianapolis. They play a Christmas Eve game at Seattle, then return home to finish the regular season against the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 1.
"I'm very proud of these guys, three division championships in a row," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. "Next week is a game we want to win. What we've done all year is not look too far ahead, just look at the next game and that's what we'll do."
Pressed about his plans to possibly rest some of his key players down the stretch, especially with home field secured, Dungy again insisted he is far more concerned about winning the Super Bowl than going undefeated.
"The big one is what you play for in this league," he said. "If the other thing takes place, great. . . . We'll try to win the last three, but it's not the most important thing."
On this day, the Colts defense, ranked No. 3 in the NFL, provided some of the most important plays, recovering three fumbles, holding the Jaguars to 74 rushing yards and keeping the home team out of the end zone for almost 56 minutes.
But the Colts offense took control of the game at the start of the first quarter, then exerted even more pressure in the third, extending a 17-3 halftime lead to 23-3 with two time-consuming field goal drives. The Jaguars had the ball for only two minutes in the period.
Manning, held to a career low 44.0 passer rating during a 10-3 Week 2 victory over the Jaguars, atoned for that performance by throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns, with a 113.7 rating. His 65-yard deep throw to his favorite target, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, provided a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter and kicker Mike Vanderjagt also added field goals from 40, 34, 38 and 46 yards, giving him 19 in 20 attempts this season.
On his touchdown pass to Harrison, Manning said he noticed in film study that Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis seemed vulnerable to a double move. Harrison did his part, hesitating for a moment about 15 yards down the field, then streaking past the defensive back and catching the ball in full stride with Mathis five yards behind.
"The corner bit on the fake," Manning said. "That's kind of the way we've played all year. We can drag it out and go with long boring drives, or we can go one and done as we like to say. That's sort of been our theme all season."
The Jaguars started backup quarterback David Garrard for the second straight game, with starter Byron Leftwich out with a broken leg. They also had a backup center, and running back Fred Taylor, returning after missing three games with an ankle injury, also looked a step slow and was held to 19 yards on 10 carries.
Still, Garrard managed to rally his team in the final minutes, throwing for one touchdown, running for another and completing a two-point conversion pass to cut the Colts' lead to eight points with 1:54 remaining.
But instead of trying an onside kick, Coach Jack Del Rio opted to kick off deep and the Colts took over at their 20.
"With three timeouts, we had to have a defensive stop," Del Rio said. "The percentages of getting another onside kick there are remote. We thought field position was the right call."
Manning took it another way.
"It was a direct challenge to our offense," he said. "I pointed that out to the offensive line."
On third and seven, Manning clinched the first down and the game with a pass for a first down to Clark, aiming more to a spot than to Clark.
"Dallas made a good move on the guy and I backpedaled with a guy in my face," Manning said. "It's one of those plays where you just trust he'll be in the right spot. I really couldn't see him. It's the greatest feeling for a quarterback. You can't see it, but you can hear it."