One team showed up at the RCA Dome on Sunday afternoon for a tense divisional showdown minus a half-dozen key players dealing with varying states of infirmity. The other arrived here, as it has the past few visits, without its composure.
Advantage, Indianapolis Colts, the franchise that lost a lot of players in Week 2 and even during Sunday's game, but also the team that never lost its cool.
In a taut 21-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars that wasn't decided until Indianapolis backup safety Mike Doss intercepted a Byron Leftwich pass with 44 seconds left, the Colts demonstrated once again that the ability to maintain one's poise is often as critical as the ability to make plays.
Sometimes, it seems in this always-close matchup of AFC powerhouses, the former attribute is perhaps infinitely more crucial than the latter. Given the excellence of the two teams, the Jacksonville-Indianapolis games are always going to be emotional bloodlettings.
But it's the Jaguars who allow their emotions to spill over the edge, who lose control, and invariably lose winnable games.
"You play between the whistles," said Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett. "All the talking that goes on out there, it doesn't mean a thing. That's what counts, the stuff you do before the whistle blows. After that, all you do is get yourself and your team in trouble with any kind of [extracurricular] stuff. The games with these guys, hey, they're way too close to get caught up in that kind of craziness."
For the second year in a row here, Jacksonville outplayed the Colts but squandered an opportunity to steal the infrequent victory by a visiting team in the RCA Dome, in part because of silly penalties. The one that figures to most stick in the craw of Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, whose team keeps yapping about a lack of respect but then commits senseless fouls that suggest the maturation process isn't quite complete, occurred in the second quarter and turned around a contest that Jacksonville had dominated to that point.
Leading 7-0, and having squelched Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis offense on two straight series, Leftwich threw incomplete on a third-and-9 from the Jacksonville 37-yard line, setting up a punt. But after the incompletion, Jaguars right guard Chris Naeole was flagged for unnecessary roughness for shoving linebacker Cato June, meaning that Chris Hanson had to punt from 15 yards deeper.
Hanson boomed the punt 48 yards, but Colts return man Terrence Wilkins -- with one brilliant cutback to the right seam to avoid deep-snapper Joe Zelenka, a move to step out of would-be tackle by Tony Gilbert, and then a devastating block by Jason David on Hanson -- chugged the kick back 82 yards for a tying touchdown. It was, to be sure, the signature play of the game, as important in the overall big picture as Manning's surprise two-yard bootleg in the fourth quarter for what proved to be the winning score.
The gaffe by Naeole, and a personal foul early in the game against wide receiver Reggie Williams, were reminiscent of last season's game here, in which Jacksonville drew three flags for either personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct. Characteristically, teams as good as Jacksonville eventually mature beyond such moments, which are symptomatic of either a lack of maturity or too much hubris.
Gaining some control of their emotions is an important component of success that the Jaguars clearly have yet to master. It was difficult at times Sunday to know which was more egregious, the Jags' transgressions or the dubious officiating by referee Peter Morelli's crew, which deservedly drew incessant jeers from the partisan crowd.
The punt return by Wilkins suddenly neutralized the early momentum and, unfortunately for the Jaguars, left the pecking order in the AFC South unaltered yet again. Coach Tony Dungy's team has not surrendered the division lead since early November 2004, and in an AFC South that certainly looks like a two-team race between the Colts and Jags just three weeks into the schedule, Indianapolis again is the front-running thoroughbred. Part of that consistency is playing under control.
Said Dungy: "We made some adjustments and we did keep our composure." That the Colts remain the team to beat, in the division and maybe in the AFC in general, is certainly a testimony to their ability to make just enough plays to win in games like Sunday's contest. Jacksonville owned huge advantages in first downs (20-14), total yards (297-272), rushing yards (191-63), total snaps (69-53) and time of possession (39:24-20:36).
But as Manning pointed out, after being apprised of his fairly mundane statistics for the day: "Ultimately, it's about winning a football game. ... And we usually win more than we lose around here. No matter what the statistics might [indicate]."
As usual, the Jaguars, who were woofin' after last Monday night's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that they had "bullied the bullies," arrived here undaunted by the ear-splitting RCA Dome crowd or the Colts' credentials. And, as usual, they left with an "L" in the ledger book. Make no mistake, the Jags are fearless when they play Indianapolis, even here, but it's invariably their own mistakes that prove their undoing.
The average margin in the last five games played here between the teams is just seven points. But because of self-inflicted wounds, Jacksonville has won just one of those matchups.
"I don't know what we've got to do," said Jacksonville middle linebacker Mike Peterson, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Colts before signing with the Jags as a free agent in 2003. "I mean, we're right there with them. We play them hard. They know they're in a tough game when they have to play us. But we've got to start coming out of these games with something to show for it, something more than just the effort we [expended]."
Indeed, the stingy Jacksonville defense held Manning below a 50-percent completion rate (14-for-31 for 219 yards, with one touchdown pass and no interceptions) for the second straight time at the RCA Dome. It was only the sixth time in 131 starts that Manning completed fewer than half his attempts, and he has won on just two of those half-dozen occasions. Both times, you guessed it, were against Jacksonville.
"It wasn't like there were a lot of memorable plays [on offense], that's for sure, but the important thing is that we did enough to win," Manning said.
Among the notable plays were a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark, on which the Jaguars' secondary had a breakdown in communication; a 38-yard completion to wideout Marvin Harrison, who had six catches for 94 yards; a 17-yard run by tailback Dominic Rhodes in the fourth quarter that helped to melt the clock on a day when Indianapolis managed a paltry 63 rushing yards; and Manning's two-yard scamper around right end on which he completely bamboozled the Jacksonville front seven.
For all the problems trying to eke outs yards against the Jacksonville front four, and especially tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, the Colts just never fully abandoned the running game. And that, said center Jeff Saturday, is a huge part of the patience that Dungy has promulgated here.
"We just do what we do," Saturday said. "We don't deviate too much. And we count on ourselves to make plays when it counts."
Crippled on defense, particularly in the front four, Indianapolis surrendered 191 yards on 40 rushes. But in the second half, after making adjustments to slow a Jacksonville ground game that kept running draw plays out of the shotgun formation, a strategy designed the slow the upfield forays of Indianapolis defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts allowed only 34 yards on 11 rushes.
"As bad as it looked statistically (at halftime), it was only 7-7," Dungy said. "And we knew we could make some adjustments against their running game. ... And that our guys would respond."
The often-criticized Doss, playing only because Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders was out, finished with nine tackles and the game-securing interception. Nickel cornerback Marlin Jackson, forced to play in the "base" defense after starter Nick Harper went down with a knee injury, registered seven tackles and really helped to staunch the run in the second half. Mathis, who played only 40 snaps last week, unofficially participated in 56 plays, because of the lack of ambulatory bodies up front. And Wilkins, signed as an afterthought in the summer after being out of the league entirely in 2005, provided the big punt return.
In addition to their emotional deficiencies, the Jaguars shot themselves in the foot by missing field goals of 24 and 49 yards, and Leftwich was intercepted twice on just 28 attempts. Despite the fact the Colts played much of the game without two starters in the secondary, Jacksonville rarely tested the undermanned unit with a deep ball, and Leftwich's longest completion was for just 17 yards.
"I think they came in here and felt like they could impose their will, which is what they kept saying they did to Pittsburgh last week," Doss said. "But we don't let that stuff get to us, and that's a credit to the way that we're coached."
While it might be unfair to opine that Jacksonville's problems with demeanor are reflective of Del Rio and his coaching strategy, it is appropriate to suggest that the Colts have defeated the Jaguars the last two times here because they heed Dungy's constant message to stay under control at all times.
"It's the one thing that ticks him off, fighting and that kind of stuff, and the one thing that will make him stop practice," Manning said. "That's just reflective of him, but it's become a part of us, and one reason why we've been as successful as we've been."