On Thursday night, sold-out Jacksonville Municipal Stadium became a Petri dish for the scourge on the workplace that is the sick day. Like wage earners in cafeterias, classrooms and cubicles, the ailing members of the undefeated Colts faced the nettlesome question: To work or not to work.
All the principals played in Indianapolis’s 35-31 victory against the Jaguars, but not because they were worried about a written reprimand ending up in their personnel file if they did not dress. In fact, they had the blessing of their boss to take the day off with full pay.
Bill Polian, the Colts’ president, said the team’s starters had earned the right to rest after securing the No. 1 seed in the American Football Conference. Unlike the Jaguars, the Colts’ hated division rivals who needed a victory to control their postseason destiny, all that was on the line for Indianapolis was its perfect season and 22-game winning streak dating to November of last year.
That was enough. After taking the temperature of his players and detecting a feverish desire to run the table, the first-year coach Jim Caldwell played his stars. Reggie Wayne, among the more outspoken players in pleading for a pedal-to-the-metal drive for perfection, took a pass from Peyton Manning with 5 minutes 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter and ran the Colts’ record to 14-0, their best start in franchise history, with a 65-yard score.
Wayne’s touchdown reception capped off a three-play, 72-yard drive and gave the Colts another nail-biting victory over the Jaguars (7-7). The last five games between the teams have been decided by less than 7 points. Wayne has been a difference-maker; he had 5 catches Thursday and 10 in the Colts’ 2-point victory against the Jaguars in the season opener.
He said he will continue lobbying for the regulars to play in the Colts’ remaining games, against the Jets and the Buffalo Bills. ”It’s not even about the record,” Wayne said. ”It’s about us keeping the flow, us keeping this team on a roll and not getting any rust built up.”
Manning, who passed for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns, completed his first 13 passes in a start that was reminiscent to a game here last year when he started 17 of 17. His streak ended in the third quarter when he was intercepted by Daryl Smith at the Colts’ 39, setting up Garrard’s second touchdown toss, to Mike Sims-Walker. It gave the Jaguars’ their fourth lead, at 24-21.
Asked if he would lobby to remain in the lineup for the two remaining games, against the Jets and the Buffalo Bills, rather than rest for the postseason, Manning said, ”Well, we’re not going to lobby because that’s not what this football team is about. The head coach makes the call, and we follow his orders. Obviously, personally I hope we still play.”
The Colts’ star defensive end Dwight Freeney played after missing practices during the short week because of an abdominal strain. But all of Caldwell’s horses on defense could not slow Jaguars quarterback David Garrard or running back Maurice Jones-Drew. The Colts’ defense came into the game allowing 16.7 points. The Jaguars had exceeded that by halftime, trailing by 21-17.
Garrard, who has heard the fans here clamor for the team to draft Florida’s Tim Tebow as his replacement, did not throw an incompletion in the first quarter and finished 23 of 40 for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Catching one of his passes in the end zone was Jones-Drew, who carved the Colts’ defense like a Swiss Army knife. In addition to his five catches, Jones-Drew rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown. He had not gained 100 yards since a Nov. 15 game against the Jets, averaging 66 yards in the next four games.
Manning, who passed for 308 yards and four touchdowns, completed his first 13 passes in a start that harked back to a game here last year when he started 17 of 17. His streak ended in the third quarter when he was intercepted by Daryl Smith at the Colts’ 39, setting up Garrard’s second touchdown toss, to Mike Sims-Walker. It was the first touchdown after a turnover that the Colts’ defense had allowed all season and it gave the Jaguars’ their fourth lead, at 24-21.
After Wayne’s score, the Jaguars drove from their 20 to the Colts’ 33 before Garrard was intercepted by Jacob Lacey at the Colts’ 11 on a pass intended for Mike Thomas.
”It was a tough game,” Sims-Walker said. ”I just knew all game it was going to be a shootout.” He added, ”We knew it was going to come down to the final drive. We always play the Colts well, they’re a good team. We just didn’t get that play we needed at the end.”
The teams combined for 35 first downs and no punts in the first three quarters, the one-upmanship by the offenses providing great theater for the crowd of 63,753, the only sellout of the season. Jacksonville has been much maligned as an N.F.L. market, never mind that the 15-year-old Jaguars’ first generation of ”lifelong fans” is in high school or college — not exactly the profile of the typical N.F.L. season-ticket holder.
With the loss, the Jaguars’ postseason prospects turned murky. They are currently in ninth place in the American Football Conference, now behind the Jets, the Dolphins and the Ravens, all 7-6.
Before the opening kickoff, there was a moment of silence for Bengals receiver Chris Henry, 26, who died Thursday morning of head injuries after he fell from the back of a moving pickup truck Wednesday.
”Even though he wasn’t part of our organization, he’s still a brother,” said the 31-year-old Wayne, who grew up in New Orleans, as did Henry. ”We’re from the same state so I’ve heard a lot about him, even after I was gone I heard about a young kid making plays at Belle Chasse High School. Whenever something like this happens, it’s just sad for everybody.”
PHOTO: The Jaguars’ David Garrard after throwing a touchdown pass in the second quarter.(PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL COALE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)