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Jags to host undefeated Colts

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has nicks, cuts and bruises all over his body. He has aches, pains and a sore knee. He's sat out just about every midweek practice this season and makes weekly visits to a massage therapist.

He's finding out just how difficult it is to be a featured back.

Jones-Drew has 1,136 yards rushing and a league-leading 14 touchdowns, but the last four weeks have been far from normal for the 5-foot-7, 208-pound wrecking ball. He's averaged 69 yards on the ground and 3.4 yards per carry the last month, a huge concern for the Jaguars (7-6) heading into what looks like their biggest game of the season.

Although the Colts (13-0) are getting all the attention because of their perfect record, their 22-game winning streak in the regular season and their decision to play or rest some starters in Thursday night's game at Jacksonville, the Jaguars are more concerned with getting Jones-Drew back on track.

Coach Jack Del Rio feels like it has to happen if his team is going to upset the Colts and maintain control of the final AFC wild-card spot.

"He's the guy that we're built around," Del Rio said. "Everybody knows that, and when they overload to limit his ability to be effective, we've got to be able to strike through the air. We haven't done it well enough lately. Over probably the last month, we've been pretty stagnant in that area.

"We need to get him going. We need to create more room, more opportunity, so we look to do that."

Jones-Drew has enjoyed some of his best games against the Colts. He has 668 yards rushing and six touchdowns in seven games against the perennial AFC South champions.

He looked to be on a roll midway through this season, running for 530 yards and seven touchdowns in a four-game stretch that included three wins. But he hasn't been the same since, and neither have the Jaguars.

Could he be wearing down in his first season as the team's offensive centerpiece? Is his sore knee worse than anyone is letting on? Are teams really just stacking the line of scrimmage and forcing quarterback David Garrard to beat them?

"It's a respect issue," Jones-Drew said. "A lot of people respect our rushing attack so they're going to load the box and do everything they can, but it hasn't hurt us before. We slowed down a little bit. That happens. It's not a late-in-the-season issue. A lot of people are just geared up to stop our run. That's what they want to do. We just have to be able to do a little bit more."

Jacksonville believes it knows how to beat Indianapolis: run the ball effectively, control the clock and keep Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and the rest of the team's potent offense off the field. Even then, it might not be enough.

Miami ran for 239 yards and held the ball for more than 45 minutes against the Colts in September, but Manning directed two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to lead Indy to a come-from-behind victory.

The Jaguars might get some help keeping Manning & Co. on the sideline.

Having already locked up the AFC South title, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Colts coach Jim Caldwell might consider resting several key players down the stretch. Caldwell has declined to divulge his plans, saying "healthy" starters will play.

"It's what's best for us in terms of getting us ready to play well down the line," Caldwell said. "Obviously the most important games are the playoff games, and obviously we're fortunate enough to be there, so we've just got to keep trying to get better and stay sharp and keep playing hard."

Manning, for one, would prefer to be in the huddle every play.

"I always want to be in there playing and that's what I expect to be doing," Manning said. "Just because there's a lot of speculation and analysis on what we're supposed to do or what the (unbeaten New Orleans) Saints are supposed to do, all we know to do is do what we've been doing every single week and to go out there and play as hard as we can and try to execute."

Indy struggled to execute in the season opener against Jacksonville. Manning threw an interception on the first drive, Joseph Addai fumbled on the next one, Adam Vinatieri missed a long field goal, and the Colts failed to convert twice on fourth-and-1 plays.

The result was a season-low 14 points and a two-point victory.

"We did some things to hurt ourselves," Manning said. "They obviously caused some turnovers. Those are some plays that you'd like to avoid. But we had a couple turnovers down there in the scoring position, which is always disappointing because you're on the verge of scoring and all of a sudden you come away with zero points."

The Colts have been considerably sharper since.

The Jaguars can't say the same about their offense, especially since Jones-Drew has been bottled up. But Caldwell said he hasn't noticed a difference.

"He looks the same to me," Caldwell said. "He's just as dangerous, just as explosive. He's tough, he's determined. He can be a real tough individual to handle, as you can see from when we've played them previously. He's done a tremendous job. I can still remember down there I think a couple years ago he ran for an ungodly amount of yards. He's still quite explosive."