JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines the Indianapolis Colts as they prepare to play the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, Sunday at 1 p.m.
The skinny on the Colts is there's already a feeling of looking ahead.
That began happening this past Saturday when a loss at Oakland eliminated the Colts from the postseason for a second consecutive season. The last time Indianapolis missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was 1997 and 1998, with 1998 being quarterback Peyton Manning's rookie season.
The Colts this season lost three of their first four games and were never above .500 after losses to Detroit and Denver to open the season. They won back-to-back games just once.
"We just haven't been playing well and playing as ourselves," Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "We just haven't been playing Colts football. At the end of the day we just want to finish off the season the right way."
While quarterback Andrew Luck remains one of the NFL's elite players at his position, he has been under pressure too often this season – and the running game has struggled at times. The Colts rank 27th in the NFL with an aging defense, and have allowed 25 or more points nine times.
Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano said this week he has no plans to rest players because of the postseason no longer being a possibility.
"Why would we?" Pagano told reporters. "We play to win the game."
The Colts are 15-16 overall since losing the AFC Championship Game in New England following the 2014 season. They are 3-5 in the AFC South since setting an NFL record with 16 consecutive division victories. The Jaguars snapped the streak with a 51-16 victory at EverBank Field last December.
Luck this season returned from an injury-plagued, inconsistent 2015 season to register a season on par with his elite-level efforts from the first three seasons of his career – 2012-2014. Luck this season has 29 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, with a major issue for the Colts' offense continuing to be Luck being continually under pressure. The Colts rank 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards, though veteran Frank Gore can surpass 1,000 for the season with 36 yards Sunday. Gore would be the oldest player since John Riggins of Washington in 1984 to rush for more than 1,000 yards. "I think you have a bunch of guys that lay everything on the line to win the game to make sure that happens," Pagano said of the possibility of Gore reaching 1,000.
The Colts rank 27th in the NFL in total defense, and are also 21st in the NFL in sacks, ranking 29th by allowing 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. Still, Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said the Colts have strengths defensively – particularly along the front seven. "They're stout up front," Hackett said. "They're big and strong guys." Outside linebacker Erik Walden leads the Colts with 10 sacks this season, and Hackett said cornerback Vontae Davis remains strong in his eighth NFL season. "He's always been a guy who's an aggressive corner," Hackett said, adding of Davis and Walden, "Those two guys are guys we have to be aware of and know what we're doing."
This game may or may not be decided with this matchup, but there's little question Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey versus Hilton is the game's top head-to-head battle. Ramsey, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, has emerged in recent weeks as perhaps the NFL's best defensive rookie with two interceptions and nine passes defensed in the last two games. Hilton made his third Pro Bowl this season and leads the NFL in receiving yards by 30 yards over Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants. "He's good," Hilton said of Ramsey. "He does a lot of things well. He's a big corner. He likes to get his hands on you. He's very physical. He's playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger. As a DB you need that, but right now he definitely has elevated his game."
"I take full responsibility for everything. That's what comes with the job."
"He doesn't age. He just keeps getting better, keeps running hard. Frank is one of those guys who takes care of his body. He's a down-hill runner. He's one of those guys you love playing with."
--Hilton on Gore
"We faced him when we were [coaching] in Seattle and obviously we're facing him now. He still has his jump cut, and he runs hard behind his pads. It's amazing that he's still doing it and he's doing it at a very high level. It's definitely a challenge for our front seven or eight. He's going to get his. He's a great professional running back and it's going to be a challenge."
--Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash on Gore