Colts do a number on Jags on third down

Reggie Wayne snatches a 48-yard touchdown pass in the Colts' 28-25 win. He finished with eight catches for 158 yards. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- No matter how well the Jacksonville Jaguars play here, the outcome always seems to be the same.
The Indianapolis Colts invariably make enough plays at critical junctures to win.

And in Sunday's 28-25 victory, which all but secured Indianapolis' fifth consecutive AFC South crown, most of those plays came on third down.

"It was uncanny the way Peyton [Manning] kept getting us into the right play on all of those third-down situations," said tight end Dallas Clark, who had two touchdown catches on third-down plays. "On most of them, especially early on in the game, he audibled or checked off to the play. And on most of them, obviously, he was right on the nose. He called a tremendous game in general, but he was especially sharp on third down. He was really unbelievable in tough situations."

Once again facing an Indianapolis defense that was undermanned up front, the Jaguars' offense bested the Colts' in most key statistical areas. The Colts played most of the game with a tackle rotation consisting of three rookies after Raheem Brock was lost to a rib injury in the first quarter.

With emerging star quarterback David Garrard (24-of-29 for 257 yards) and tailback Fred Taylor (104 yards rushing) standing out, the Jags had more first downs (27-19), yards (411-342), snaps (63-55) and time of possession (35:45-24:15).

But the only statistics that really counted in a game in which a Jacksonville victory would have forged a first-place tie in the division were the final numbers on the scoreboard. And the statistic that most added up to an Indianapolis victory was the Colts' 10 conversions on their 13 third-down plays.

Manning completed eight of 10 third-down passes for 145 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, for an efficiency rating of 118.6. Three of his four touchdown passes -- two to Clark and a 48-yard bomb to wide receiver Reggie Wayne on a third-and-16 play -- were on third down.

Three of the conversions came on plays on which the Colts needed 10 yards or more to convert. Clark caught three passes for 26 yards on third-down plays. Wayne -- who finished with eight receptions for 158 yards in another dominating performance without running mate Marvin Harrison -- had four third-down catches for 109 yards, including three grabs of 21 yards or more. The Colts totaled 156 yards on third down, 45.6 percent of their total output, a remarkably large percentage by NFL standards.

About the only error Manning committed on a third-down throw came late in the third quarter when he was flushed from the pocket and attempted to force the ball to Clark, who was running along the back line of the end zone. Manning never saw Jacksonville rookie free safety Reggie Nelson, who intercepted.

Manning termed the throw "a horrible, horrible decision given the circumstance," conceding he should have simply rifled the ball into the stands and settled for a field goal that would have given the Colts a 10-point lead instead of fueling the Jaguars' upset aspirations. But it was tough to argue with Manning's third-down selections most of the afternoon.

"We tried to mix it up on third down, to keep him guessing, but he kept outsmarting us, I guess," Jacksonville strong safety Sammy Knight said. "As a defense, that's exactly what you want, especially against that offense: to keep them in third-and-long. But we'd get them into that situation, and we couldn't knock them off the field. When they needed a play on third down, they got it. When we needed a stop, we just couldn't come up with it, and that really was the biggest difference. It's disappointing, because we played pretty well in most other aspects of the game."

The Jaguars know all too well the feeling of playing well and still coming up short against Indianapolis. Not since an Oct. 24, 2004, victory here has Jacksonville led the division outright after the first month of the season. Since the 2002 realignment that created the AFC South, the Colts have led the division or been tied for the division lead in 91 of 98 weeks.

Seemingly destined again for a wild-card berth, Jacksonville (8-4) just can't seem to get over the hump against Indianapolis (10-2), to which it lost 29-7 in Week 7. And with a two-game division lead and four December games against a less-than-imposing schedule, the Colts have breathing room. As coach Tony Dungy noted, Indianapolis bought itself some more time to get its injured players -- notably Harrison, who has missed seven of the past eight contests -- healthy again.

"This gives us a chance," Dungy said, "to be a little more conservative with some of our [injured] people."

That the Colts survived another difficult test, and against an opponent that typically displays little fear against Indianapolis, was a testimony to Manning's aggressive third-down play calling. Dungy said he generally expects a "tight and hard-fought" game when the Colts and Jaguars meet.

But as tight end Ben Utecht said, the Colts expect to win because they always seem to make more plays than the Jaguars.

"It's just a frame of mind, and we've become accustomed to it," said Utecht, whose role in the offense continues to expand. "And, of course, a lot of that comes from having Peyton come up with the big plays and big throws at critical times."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.