JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines key players, matchups and storylines as the Jaguars prepare to play the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field Sunday
The playoff talk is over.
That was pretty much true for the Jaguars before this past Sunday, but a 42-39 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville left them two games out of first place in the AFC South with four games remaining. An AFC wild-card spot also looks out of reach barring a 4-0 finish and a whole lot of help.
Still, the final four games of the 2015 season matter. There is a major difference between 4-12 and 8-8; where the Jaguars finish within that range of records will determine how this third season under Head Coach Gus Bradley is perceived.
The offense needs to keep growing, as do quarterback Blake Bortles and an increasingly productive group of skill players. Wide receiver Allen Robinson has a chance to have an elite-level season, and even beyond records and milestones, this offense needs to continue developing. It appears to be a strength moving forward, and success in the last four games can only help that.
After winning three of four games to move to the cusp of the playoff chase, the Jaguars have lost two consecutive games. How will they respond? A mark of Bradley's teams since 2013 is they haven't quit. That must continue to be a defining trait in the final month of the season.
The Colts haven't dominated the AFC South as they did in recent seasons, but they remain very much in title contention.
That makes Sunday a critical game for the Jaguars' division rivals.
Injuries have been an issue for the Colts, particularly at quarterback. Andrew Luck is expected to miss a fourth consecutive game Sunday with a lacerated kidney. His replacement, Matt Hasselbeck, has gone 4-1 as a starter this season, but he left a loss to Pittsburgh Sunday with shoulder and neck injuries.
Hasselbeck is expected to play against the Jaguars, but he had one of his roughest games of the season against Pittsburgh, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble.
The Colts can win a third consecutive AFC South title with a victory over Jacksonville Sunday and a victory over Houston next Sunday if the Texans lose to New England Sunday.
Matchups to watch
*Jaguars wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns versus Colts cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler.Robinson and Hurns have emerged as one of the NFL's top young wide receiver duos, with Robinson – who had 153 yards and three touchdowns receiving against Tennessee – already setting a franchise record with 11 touchdown receptions this season. Hurns is expected to play this Sunday after missing last Sunday (concussion). Davis and Toler typically play the right and left sides, respectively, though Davis has at times shadowed elite receivers. Davis has allowed seven touchdowns this season, and both players struggled against Pittsburgh.
*Jaguars pass rush versus Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.This isn't exactly a one-on-one matchup, but the pass rush continues to be the Jaguars' major concern defensively. They have tried blitzing, dropping defenders in coverage and rushing with four. They have gotten sporadic pressure and also have allowed big plays when blitzing. The Colts' offensive line has struggled at times this season, changing lineups five times – in part because of injuries and in part because of performance – and allowing28 sacks.
*Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien and LB Telvin Smith versus Colts tight ends Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle. Allen hasn't been quite as productive this season as in healthy seasons in 2012 and 2014, but because of Fleener's 43 receptions for 372 yards this remains a dangerous position for the Colts. Tight ends have re-emerged as a difficult matchup for the Jaguars in recent weeks, with Titans tight ends Delanie Walker and Craig Stevens each catching a touchdown pass Sunday and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates catching two the week before that.
Jaguars to watch
*Blake Bortles, quarterback. Bortles continues to be the major storyline of the Jaguars' season, and the theme is increasingly a positive one. He has thrown 27 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, turning around his 11-17 touchdown-interception ratio as a rookie last season. He did not throw an interception in Sunday's loss to the Titans, the first time in eight games he went interception-less.
*Julius Thomas, tight end.The veteran was the team's top offseason free-agent acquisition. An early-season hand injury kept him out for games, and it took time for he and Bortles to gain needed chemistry, but Thomas has touchdown receptions in each of the last three games.
*The Leos.This has become an area of focus in recent weeks, and not for positive reasons. The Jaguars' top two Leo pass rushers – Chris Clemons and Andre Branch – have combined for four sacks this season. While they have played the run well, their struggles to get consistent pressure are a big reason the Jaguars' pass rush as a whole has struggled. Could that mean a bigger role Sunday for Chris Smith? Bradley said early this week it was possible.
Keep an eye on …
*Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny sustained a fractured hand Sunday, and has not been ruled out for Sunday. His status likely will be updated Wednesday. …
*Otto linebacker Dan Skuta has missed three of the last four games with a groin injury. His status also likely will be updated Wednesday. …
*Wide receiver Rashad Greene left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury. Look for his status to be updated Wednesday. …
*The Jaguars have placed running back Bernard Pierce (calf) and Toby Gerhart (groin) on injured reserve in recent days. They were in reserve roles, and their absence leaves starter T.J. Yeldon, backup Denard Robinson and Joe Banyard as healthy running backs. …