JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It wasn’t that long ago that Indianapolis and Jacksonville played for the division title.
Less than two years, in fact.
Both teams have changed coaches, quarterbacks and other personnel since.
It’s pretty clear which one is further along in the rebuilding project.
The Colts (5-3) have won three straight heading into Thursday night’s game at Jacksonville, pulling out close games behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and playing inspired football since coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia.
The Jaguars (1-7), meanwhile, have dropped five in a row since winning the first meeting between the AFC South rivals.
“We’re expecting the biggest, baddest punch they’ve got because of their situation,” Colts interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “We can’t sit back and pat ourselves on the back or they’ll bloody our nose.”
A lot would need to change for that to happen.
The Jaguars have the league’s worst offense — they won’t have running back Maurice Jones-Drew again — and haven’t played much better on defense. They were far from competitive in four home games, losing to Houston, Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit by a combined score of 126-34.
Owner Shad Khan, speaking publicly for the first time this season, called it “sad and embarrassing.”
Khan will evaluate things after the season and hasn’t ruled out wholesale changes. That could mean firing general manager Gene Smith and maybe even coach Mike Mularkey after just one season.
Players have a sense that changes could be on the horizon.
“It’s just time to get this thing rolling,” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We’re way out of the playoff picture, but our coaches work way too hard and it’s a bad representation of the new owner and what he’s done for us. It’s time for the players to do their part.”
And if that doesn’t happen?
“It’s the NFL. It’s a cutthroat business,” guard Uche Nwaneri said. “You can be here one day and gone the next. It just becomes a little bit more magnified when you have a situation like this. We work with that kind of pressure on us every day, so nothing new there.”
The short week could benefit Jacksonville, which has its longest winning streak (three) in the series.
Home teams are 6-2 in Thursday night games this season, no doubt a distinct advantage after they went 7-2 in those prime-time games in 2011.
“It’s tough on the body. It’s tough on the mind,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “Especially with us having a young team, it’s going to be important that we keep guys mentally focused and make sure you take care of your body because this is going to be a shock to the body. There’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to look into and try to get fixed and get fixed fast. This is a test for us. “
It’s the first prime-time game for Luck.
The two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up has exceeded two years of hype over his first eight NFL games.
He already has three more wins than Indy did last season with three veteran quarterbacks. And against Miami on Sunday, he broke Cam Newton’s single-game rookie record for passing yards by throwing for 433 in a 23-20 victory. He also tied the rookie record set by his predecessor, Peyton Manning, for most 300-yard games in a season (four) and is on pace to shatter several other marks.
He has completed 190 of 336 passes for 2,404 yards, with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. At this rate, he would shatter Sam Bradford’s rookie marks for completions (354) and attempts (590) and Newton’s record for yardage (4,051). He also could challenge Manning’s rookie record for TD passes (26).
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the world,” Arians said. “He has made us into a decent offense right now. There are times when we look like a bunch of rookies out there and then there’s other times when we play pretty solid. He is the one pretty consistent force. He likes to practice, he loves to learn, he loves to meet and he has an infectious personality. He kind of wills himself on those guys in the huddle so he’s brought a lot to it.”
Luck and many of his teammates will sport a new look for this game.
Almost three dozen Colts have shaved their heads in a show of support for Pagano. Luck, kicker Adam Vinatieri and Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea are among those with buzz cuts.
Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 26 and was hospitalized until Oct. 21. On Monday, his physician, Dr. Larry Cripe of the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, said Pagano was in “complete remission.”
The Jaguars are hoping quarterback Blaine Gabbert can duplicate Luck’s success on the field.
Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, was supposed to be the key to Jacksonville’s rebuild. Although Gabbert beat Indy with an 80-yard TD pass to Cecil Shorts III in the final minute of the first meeting, he has been mostly inconsistent all season. He really took a step back in last week’s 31-14 loss to Detroit, throwing several poor passes and two interceptions.
But if there’s one thing the Jaguars have learned after watching Gabbert for two seasons, it’s that pressure can make quarterbacks uncomfortable.
They believe that’s the key to slowing down Luck and the Colts.
“You can make anybody look like a rookie again with a few hits,” defensive end Jeremy Mincey said.