A few weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts seemed inexorably on their way to a winless season that would guarantee a dubious -- though much needed -- consolation prize in a chance to presumably select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in next April's NFL Draft.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the war room. The Colts let a winning streak get in the way.
Consecutive defeats of the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans, while assuaging a fan base accustomed to perennial playoff contention, have complicated matters for a front office on the eve of Indianapolis' Week 17 visit to Jacksonville's EverBank Field for Sunday's season finale with the Jaguars.
Now tied with St. Louis for the league's worst record at 2-13, the Colts could lose the top overall pick if they beat the 4-11 Jaguars and the Rams lose as expected to the playoff-bound San Francisco 49ers this weekend.
If both teams finish with identical marks, Indianapolis would maintain the No. 1 slot and have first crack at selecting Luck, seen by many as the ideal heir apparent to an aging 35-year-old Peyton Manning, who's missed the entire 2011 schedule after a pair of neck surgeries.
St. Louis's actions with the pick would be unclear, given that the Rams drafted quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in 2010.
"That's not for the players to worry about," Colts running back Joseph Addai said of the team's draft status. "I don't worry about that. I just go out and keep playing ball."
The Colts dropped a 17-3 home verdict to Jacksonville on Nov. 13 after gaining just 212 yards of offense. Meanwhile, Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew gained 114 yards on his own in that contest.
Jones-Drew enters the season's final week with a league-best 1,437 yards rushing, 128 more than Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy. He's accounted for 46.5 percent of Jacksonville's offense this season, a pace that's well ahead of former teammate Fred Taylor's club record of 36.2 percent set in 2003.
The Pro Bowl back could be the second player since 1995 to lead the league in rushing with the NFL's worst passing offense. Previously, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis accomplished the feat in 2003.
"He's been a beast," Jacksonville guard Uche Nwaneri said of Jones-Drew. "Everyone knows we're going to run it and they still can't stop him. It's unbelievable."
Sunday's game will be the Jaguars' last under owners Wayne and Delores Weaver, who helped bring the franchise to Jacksonville in 1995. Shahid Khan bought the team two weeks ago for $760 million and will officially take over on Jan. 4.
"Mr. and Mrs. Weaver mean a lot to this city and our fans and our players know that. Our coaches know that," Jaguars interim head coach Mel Tucker said. "We want to put our best foot forward in their last game. Quite frankly, we'll give everything we can for them to finish on a high note."
Indianapolis has prevailed in 15 of 21 all-time matchups with Jacksonville, but the Jaguars have won two of the last three meetings in the series and dealt the Colts a 31-28 loss at EverBank Field last season. Indianapolis had come out on top in three consecutive visits to Jacksonville prior to that defeat, including a 35-31 verdict in 2009, and sports a 7-3 overall record as the visitor in this set. The Colts' most recent triumph over the Jaguars came at home by a 34-24 score during December of the 2010 campaign, and Jacksonville has never previously recorded a season sweep over Indianapolis in its history.
Six of the last eight contests between these teams have been decided by seven points or less, and five of those tilts had a margin of victory of four points or fewer.
Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell owns a 3-2 career record against Jacksonville as a head coach, while Tucker will be opposing both Caldwell and the Colts for the first time as a man in charge.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
In the team's two wins, Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky has completed 34-of-58 passes for 326 yards with two touchdowns, zero interceptions and an 85.8 passer rating. He has a 95.0 rating in the fourth quarter as a starter in 2011 as well. Addai had two rush touchdowns in the Colts' 2010 meeting with the Jags in Jacksonville, while backfield mate Donald Brown is averaging 7.3 yards per carry in past two games (27 attempts, 196 yards). Wide receiver Reggie Wayne needs 113 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the eighth consecutive season. He had a game-winning touchdown catch against the Texans last week and has two scoring receptions in the Colts' past two games. Wayne also has compiled 1,599 career receiving yards against the Jaguars, his most against any opponent. Fellow wideout Pierre Garcon (925 receiving yards) needs 75 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the first time in his career and has six touchdown receptions this season, tied for a career-best set last year. Slot receiver Austin Collie has four touchdown receptions in his past four games against the Jaguars.
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny leads the Jaguars with 115 tackles and had an interception against the Colts in the Week 10 win, while end Jeremy Mincey has a career-best 5 1/2 sacks in 2011 and registered the first pick of his career in last Saturday's 23-17 loss at Tennessee. Cornerback Drew Coleman had an interception in Jacksonville's previous game against the Colts this year, while fellow defensive back Morgan Trent posted his first pick as a Jaguar last week.
Statistically speaking, the Colts' offense is 28th in scoring (15.3 ppg), 30th in total yards (286.1 ypg), 27th in passing (183.5 ypg) and 24th in rushing (102.5 ypg). On defense, the Jaguars are 11th in points allowed (21.1 ppg), fifth in total yards allowed (314.0 ypg), seventh against the pass (206.6 ypg) and 11th against the run (107.4 ypg).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in this past April's draft, has thrown two touchdown passes in each of his past two home games and registered his first win against an AFC South opponent in Jacksonville's Nov. 13 victory at Indianapolis. Jones-Drew (1,437 rushing yards) needs 136 yards to surpass Taylor (1,572 in 2003) for the most on the ground in a season in franchise history, and also needs just one rushing touchdown to surpass Taylor (62) for the most scores in team annals. Jones-Drew has 74 career touchdowns, the most ever by a Jaguar, and averages 95.8 rushing yards per game against the Colts for his career while amassing 80 yards or more in 14 of 15 games in 2011. Tight end Marcedes Lewis has the most receiving yards (2,651) and touchdown receptions (17) by a tight end in club history, while second-year receiver Jarett Dillard posted his first career scoring catch in the last meeting against Indianapolis.
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, the team's lone representative to the upcoming Pro Bowl, has nine career sacks against the Jaguars and counterpart Robert Mathis has three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery over the past two games. Mathis (8.5 sacks) aims for a third straight game with a sack against Jacksonville as well and needs 1 1/2 sacks to reach double digits for the fifth time in his career. Middle linebacker Pat Angerer has a team-best 137 tackles along with a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 15 games this year, while Antoine Bethea has produced 129 tackles and two forced fumbles.
By the numbers, Jacksonville is 29th in scoring (14.9 ppg), dead last in both total yards (259.2 ypg) and passing (140.5 ypg) and 13th in rushing (118.7 ypg). On defense, the Colts are 30th in points allowed (27.4 ppg), 27th in yards allowed (378.3 ypg), 22nd against the pass (237.4 ypg) and 29th against the run (140.9 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Green Gabbert. The rookie quarterback has exceeded 200 yards passing just three times in his 14 games, including just 118 in the aforementioned November defeat of the Colts. Jacksonville has scored 20 points just twice in Gabbert's tenure, a number that may have to improve with Indianapolis having been a bit better on offense since Orlovsky took over.
Winning mentality. The Jaguars, who've lost five of six games since defeating the Colts in Week 10, haven't had a plus-.500 season since going 11-5 and reaching the playoffs in 2007, but will be motivated to send the Weavers out in style. Indianapolis, meanwhile, would love to finish what's been a dreadful campaign strong to build momentum for the upcoming season.
Long goodbye. Indianapolis veterans such as Wayne, Mathis and center Jeff Saturday are each in the final year of their respective contracts and may be playing their final game with the Colts, which could also serve as an intangible. Wayne caught the decisive pass in the final seconds of last week's 19-16 defeat of Houston.
The Jaguars have been no one's example of success this season, but they do have this particular game's best player in Jones-Drew and a defense that's high-end enough to shut down an offense led by the likes of Orlovsky. The Indianapolis veterans might have a bullet or two left in the gun, but the matchups on both sides of the ball tip the scales in the home team's favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 17, Colts 13