Last year's loss in Jacksonville was both an embarrassment and a turning point for the Indianapolis Colts. They were gashed for 375 yards rushing and that left the Colts to limp home red-faced. Then, they did something about it.
"They didn't change what they were doing. They did it better," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said of the Colts defense, which effected one of the most stunning turnarounds in NFL history. The same defense that allowed 8.9 yards per rushing attempt in the 44-17 loss to the Jaguars, went on a terror of defensive dominance all the way to the Super Bowl title.
What caused the turnaround, Colts head coach Tony Dungy was asked by Jacksonville reporters during a conference call on Thursday?
"We got some people healthier and we didn't play as good of backs as those guys down there," Dungy said, who didn't retract his statement even after he was reminded that the Colts defeated Larry Johnson and the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round of the playoffs. "Taylor and Jones-Drew are exceptional. They're as tough as you're going to face," Dungy added.
The Colts will try again to stop Taylor and Jones-Drew in a nationally-televised game on Monday night in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, in a game that could put the Jaguars in the AFC South driver's seat or leave the Jaguars and the rest of the division in what Del Rio referred to as "an all-too-familiar chase mode."
"The outcome will determine who has early-season control of the division," said Del Rio, whose team could move into a tie with the Colts in the standings but, obviously, enjoy a head-to-head advantage after seven weeks of the season.
"I think we're better in a lot of ways and we're going to have to be better. We're a more physical team on defense," Dungy said.
The Colts are 13th in the league in run-defense. The Jaguars are fourth in the league in rushing and are coming off a 244-yard game against Houston this past Sunday.
"If you're any kind of competitor, you want to make up for it," Dungy said of his defense's obvious desire to atone for last year's week-14 performance against the Jaguars. "We're playing for first place and the same two backs are playing. If they do the same thing, we're unlikely to have success."
"The reigning Super Bowl champs are better this year than they were last year. They're playing like they did through the playoffs," Del Rio said.
It's a game with several storylines: The Jaguars' proud defense vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts' explosive offense. Emerging quarterback David Garrard in his first high-profile test. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew vs. a resurrected Colts defense.
"That's a great way to make that sound," Garrard said of the dramatic flair, "but I don't care. It's about scoring enough points at the end of the game for our team to beat them."
Garrard is the league's fourth-ranked passer. He is one of only five quarterbacks in the league with a passer rating of 100 or better and Garrard is just a notch beneath Manning statistically.
Despite Garrard's red-hot start, there has been a reluctance to include him among the league's top quarterbacks. There has been a reluctance to describe him as anything more than a "game manager," a creation of recent years that refers to quarterbacks who aren't asked to do much.
"He's done everything you can ask a quarterback to do," Del Rio said of Garrard.
"We try not to get into that whole shootout thing," Garrard said. "I see a fast defense. I see a great pass-rush. They don't have to blitz a lot. We have to make sure we don't get greedy and try to do something that's not Jaguars football."
"It's about winning games," Del Rio said of the Jaguars' offensive philosophy. "We're not trying to win a stats battle.
"We want to win the division. In order to win the division, you can't let a team get so far out in front that you're chasing them the rest of the year. I think we have to acknowledge that," Del Rio added.
The Jaguars would like to put the Colts in chase mode. They'd like to make the Colts chase Taylor and Jones-Drew all over the field.