By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — The final pieces of the postseason puzzle will be fit together today.
But the Indianapolis Colts (10-5) aren't interested in the myriad possibilities that will help determine their playoff fate. Every scenario that involves the team improving its current No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs first requires a victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11), the opponent at 1 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We got a single focus, and that's on Jacksonville," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "We got a team coming in here that's won four out of their last seven ballgames. Coach (Gus) Bradley's done a great job with those guys since the bye week. They've done nothing but get better and better, and they're coming here to win a football game.
"Certainly, we better be prepared for that. You just turn the tape on, and the tape speaks for itself."
The tape shows a team with a winning record (3-2) against AFC South rivals and a far greater sense of purpose than its dismal overall mark would suggest.
Much of that is a credit to first-year head coach Bradley, who has attempted to change the culture in the locker room. Even when the Jaguars began the season with eight consecutive losses, he made sure the team saw progression during meetings.
After a 4-1 stretch following the Nov. 3 bye week, Jacksonville has lost its past two games by a combined 11 points. But that hasn't shaken the team's belief in itself or Bradley's unflappable approach.
"We show them examples of how we're improving, and they sense that, and they feel it," he said. "I think that here's another week, an opportunity to get better. We'll have a test on Sunday to see how much we've improved. I think they've really embraced that type of mentality."
Bradley doesn't have to stretch for positive reinforcement this week.
Three of Jacksonville's four victories have come on the road, and the team has won in its last two appearances in Indianapolis.
And the Jaguars' offense has been hot recently. Tight end Marcedes Lewis has a touchdown reception in four straight games, and quarterback Chad Henne had two touchdown passes in each of those contests.
"They got a little bit more confidence after a couple of wins that they have underneath their belt," Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "They still got some personnel that we got to stop. But they're believing in what Gus is preaching to them. He's a good coach, and they're playing better than the first time we played them."
The team's previous meeting came Sept. 29 in Jacksonville, and Indianapolis delivered a dominant 37-3 beating. Since then, the Jaguars have switched from Blaine Gabbert to Henne at quarterback and lost star wide receiver Cecil Shorts to injury.
Jacksonville started five rookies on defense in last week's 20-16 loss against the Tennessee Titans, and none of the four receivers on its active roster caught a pass prior to this season.
The Colts can relate to such personnel hardship. With guard/center Mike McGlynn likely to miss today's game because of an elbow injury, Indianapolis could start its eighth different combination on the offensive line and its sixth new alignment in as many weeks.
Jeff Linkenbach, Joe Reitz and Xavier Nixon are among the candidates to replace McGlynn, with Linkenbach and Reitz just returning from injuries in their own right.
Pagano said such lineup shuffles are simply a fact of life in the NFL.
"Every day you show up is an adventure sometimes," he said.
Defensive end Cory Redding also is doubtful with a shoulder injury and could be replaced by a rotation of Fili Moala, Ricardo Matthews and Jeris Pendleton — a former Jaguar who was elevated from the practice squad this week.
Others who could be sidelined today include safeties Sergio Brown — doubtful with a groin injury — and Antoine Bethea, who has made 95 consecutive starts but officially is questionable with an ankle injury.
No matter who ultimately suits up, the Colts are aiming for their third straight victory to close out the regular season. That would help give the team the momentum Pagano has been looking for heading into the playoffs.
Last week's 23-7 win against the postseason-bound Kansas City Chiefs provided a nice jump start. But Indianapolis believes there's still plenty of work to be done.
"We all knew that we could play up on a high end," running back Trent Richardson said, "and I still don't think that we've played our best football yet."