JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, Sunday
Another week, another big moment.
The Jaguars' up-and-down start to the 2015 season has created a series of significant games. At stake this week: at least a share of first place in the AFC South.
The Jaguars and Colts both enter Sunday 1-2. With the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans also 1-2, Sunday's winner at Lucas Oil Stadium will remain in first place. And while the winner also will exit Sunday with a .500 record, that does nothing to make the game less important.
The Jaguars through three games have alternated between showing improvement from last year's 3-13 record and struggling with inconsistency. They began the season with a 20-9 loss to Carolina that was defined by early mistakes and second-half offensive struggles, and then responded with a 23-20 Week 2 victory over Miami.
They enter Indianapolis needing to respond again, this time from a 51-17 loss to defending Super Bowl champion New England. The Jaguars allowed scores on New England's first nine possessions and never got closer than 20 points after the Patriots scored early in the third quarter.
The Colts took a step toward saving their season last week. This week, they can step toward season-long contention.
The Colts lost their regular-season opener, 27-14, to Buffalo, and then looked like a team in trouble in a 20-7 loss to the New York Jets. That made Week 3 at Tennessee critical, and quarterback Andrew Luck responded as he often does, rallying the Colts from a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit for a 35-33 victory.
The Colts, like the Jaguars, have dealt with injuries. Tight end Dwayne Allen could return from an ankle injury Sunday, and cornerback Darius Butler could return from a hip injury. Cornerback Greg Toler (neck) is expected to remain out Sunday.
Three matchups to watch
*Jaguars defensive front versus Colts offensive front.The Jaguars' front created chaos last season in Indianapolis, sacking Luck five times in the first half and forcing three fumbles. That kept the Jaguars close early in what became a 23-3 Colts victory. The Jaguars' line has created adequate pressure this season and must do so Sunday despite the continued absence of defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks. Defensive end Andre Branch could make his first appearance of the season against a Colts offensive line that changed three starters before its best performance of the season last week. Stopping running back Frank Gore is key. He rushed for a season-high 86 yards against Tennessee, and to get pass-rushing opportunities on Luck, you must stop Gore first.
*Jaguars secondary versus Luck.The key individual matchups against Luck? It's tough to know, because it's difficult to know who will be available in the Jaguars' secondary. Two cornerbacks – Dwayne Gratz (ankle) and Davon House (lower leg) – are dealing with injuries, with Gratz missing the last two games and House leaving the loss to New England early. The Jaguars could be without safety Josh Evans (knee) Sunday, though starting strong safety Johnathan Cyprien (calf) and starting free safety Sergio Brown (calf) appear likely to play. Healthy, Luck is a tough matchup; injured, it's even tougher.
*Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson versus Colts cornerback Vontae Davis.Davis is key in a Colts secondary that has dealt with injuries, and he has the ability to shadow a team's best wide receiver all over the field. Robinson has emerged as key to the Jaguars' offense. When he caught six passes for 155 yards in Week 2, the offense scored a season-high 23 points. When the Patriots limited him early Sunday, the Jaguars' offense managed a field goal in the first half with the game in doubt. Robinson has shown signs of being an offensive force. Now, he must work toward being that consistently.
Jaguars to watch
*Bortles, quarterback. Bortles made his 16th NFL start Sunday, but entering his second full season, rookie things continue to linger. Bortles played well in Week 2 against Miami, but he struggled as often as not in Week 1 and 3 losses to Carolina and New England, respectively. He hasn't been accurate enough or consistent enough, and interceptions have been key in both losses. None of that is uncommon for a young quarterback, but the quicker Bortles accelerates the young quarterback curve, the quicker the Jaguars can follow suit.
*T.J. Yeldon, running back.Yeldon has rushed for 154 yards on 48 carries this season, and the running game has been productive in spots. Against the Patriots, Yeldon had less running room than in the first two games. This remains an area the Jaguars believe can, will and must be a strength. The Colts are the NFL's 20th-ranked rushing defense.
*Chris Clemons, defensive end.The veteran registered three of the Jaguars' first-half sacks against Indianapolis last season. Repeating that performance is unlikely, but pressuring Luck is key Sunday and Clemons remains the Jaguars' most reliable, consistent edge rusher.
Keep an eye on …
*Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee remains a concern. He left Sunday's game with soreness in the hamstring that kept him out much of training camp and the regular-season opener. He also experienced knee soreness last week. He will be evaluated throughout the week. …
*Strong safety Josh Evans (knee) will be day-to-day this week after leaving Sunday's game, while Cyprien (calf) is expected to practice Wednesday. Free safety Sergio Brown (calf) and cornerback Davon House (lower leg muscle strain) also left Sunday with injuries. Cornerback Dwayne Gratz (ankle) will continue to rehabilitate this week and said Monday he hopes to practice Wednesday. …
*Left tackle Luke Joeckel (ankle) is expected to progress into practice this week after missing the past two games and defensive end Andre Branch (knee) is expected to practice after missing the first three regular-season games. …
*Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks (knee) is expected to increase his practice workload this week after missing the first three games and tight end Julius Thomas (hand) also is expected to continue practicing limited this week after missing the first three games. …
*Wide receiver Allen Hurns (thigh) will continue to be evaluated this week, as will right guard Brandon Linder after playing through a shoulder injury Sunday. …
*Running back Denard Robinson missed Sunday's game with a knee injury that reports indicate will keep him out multiple weeks. …