The battle between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts does not offer the winner AFC South supremacy, but it's still a big game for both teams. The Colts (5-3) have reeled off three straight wins and are looking to remain in the playoff hunt with another victory. The Jaguars (1-7), on the other hand, are looking to build some momentum in the second half of the season. While a victory certainly will not vault the Jags back into playoff contention, it would boost team morale and inspire hope in a fan base that desperately seeks a winner.
Given the implications for both sides, this week's Thursday Night Football game should be a competitive contest on NFL Network (8:20 p.m. ET).
Here are three key questions heading into this matchup:
1) Can the Jaguars bait Andrew Luck into making costly mistakes?
The No. 1 overall pick has been as good as advertised, leading the Colts to surprising success in his debut season. He ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards, while connecting on a league-best 37 completions of 20-plus yards (tied with none other than Peyton Manning). In addition, he has posted four 300-yard games and engineered four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter/overtime.
Luck is playing with a veteran's poise and savvy. The Jaguars must disrupt his rhythm and bait him into making costly miscues. Jacksonville traditionally plays static coverage without a lot of pre-snap disguise, but the need to knock Luck off his game might prompt coordinator Mel Tucker to instruct his defenders to move around prior to the snap. With linebackers and cornerbacks bluffing various blitzes before falling back into coverage, the Jaguars could get Luck to make an incorrect read and turn the ball over.
2) Will Justin Blackmon finally make an impact in the passing game?
The Jaguars selected Blackmon with the fifth overall pick in April's draft to give quarterback Blaine Gabbert a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but the former Oklahoma State star has been a major disappointment to date. Although he's tied for the team lead in receptions with 23, Blackmon is averaging just 9.8 yards per catch, and has just one catch of 20-plus yards in eight games. Most importantly, he's scored just one touchdown, and he hasn't developed into the dynamic playmaker the team envisioned on draft day.
Against a Colts defense with some holes in the back end, Blackmon needs to be a factor in the passing game. Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey will look to get his young pass catcher the ball early and often using a variety of quick throws. The Jags likely will include some bunch and stacked formations to get Blackmon free releases off the line. Blackmon must become a weapon for the Jaguars' offense to finally display the explosiveness Mularkey has been desperately seeking all season.
3) Can Vick Ballard continue to anchor the ground game for the Colts?
The Colts might have stumbled upon a legitimate workhorse runner in Ballard. The fifth-round draft pick has logged 12 or more rushing attempts in each of the Colts' last three games, and has averaged 66.3 rushing yards per game during that span. While those numbers aren't impressive upon first glance, the fact that Ballard has picked up more than four yards a pop has caught the attention of opposing defensive coordinators. As a result, he's seeing more eight-man fronts, creating isolation opportunities for Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and other pass catchers on the outside. Most importantly, the Colts have been able to play hard-nosed football behind a surprisingly effective running game.
The Jaguars will be intent on minimizing Luck's effectiveness as a passer, so expect the Colts to feed Ballard early in an attempt to establish their ground attack and create big-play opportunities off play-action passes.
The Colts are riding a crest of momentum heading into this game, and Luck is playing like an MVP. He has been spectacular in every sense of the word, and Jacksonville will need to be at its best to disrupt his rhythm. While I certainly believe the Jaguars will keep this game competitive through three quarters, I think Luck and his young playmakers will eventually find their groove and run away at the end.
Colts 30, Jaguars 21
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.