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5 questions with Stampede Blue: How will the AFC South shake out?

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

A big game in the AFC South takes place on Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, as the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to play the Indianapolis Colts.

This game feels like a must-win for both sides, as each team is coming off of disappointing losses. The result has major implications on both the AFC South division and the AFC Wild Card races.

To give us some more insights into the Colts, we reached back out to Chris Blystone, deputy site manage at Stampede Blue — SB Nation’s insightful Indianapolis Colts website.

  1. Despite Brian Hoyer starting, I would have to imagine that Colts fans (at least the high majority) were expecting a win against the listless Dolphins. How surprised were you by this loss and who do you think deserves the most blame for the upset loss?

Chris: Unfortunately, based on the way this team has played this season, it shouldn’t have been altogether surprising. They’ve proven capable of winning or losing any game they find themselves in. Without T.Y. Hilton they are a relatively one-dimensional team, and Hoyer’s carelessness with the ball makes it tough to win in close situations.

His play was awful and was a major reason for the loss, but he was hardly alone. For the past three games, the offensive line of the Colts has struggled to put anything near their 2018 dominance on the field. That struggle has impacted the offense as a whole, and is a major problem if it isn’t resolved going forward, as this is probably the most talented unit on the roster.

Finally, it is impossible to talk about the disappointing loss without mentioning future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. The once reliable kicker is currently one of the worst in football, kicking just 73.7 percent of extra points and 70 percent of his field goals. For a team that routinely plays close games, that is simply unacceptable, but it is the situation they find themselves in.

2. With Jacoby Brissett expected to start on Sunday, how does it change the game plan for the Colts, and how does it change your expectations for the outcome?

Chris: Brissett is leagues better than Brian Hoyer. He is no Andrew Luck, but Brissett is cautious with the football and won’t just toss up prayers for defenses to capitalize on. That puts the team in far better position than does Hoyer, who routinely made ill-advised passes that resulted in turnovers.

Brissett will allow the Colts to execute Frank Reich’s offense properly, with the capability to strike downfield or revert to his checkdowns. Brissett tends to rely more heavily on checkdowns than Colts fans would like, and he doesn’t throw receivers open as much as he seems to need to see receivers open before making his throws. The offense is much better with him on the field, and the only questions remain what condition he’ll be in and also who are the players he’ll be throwing to, with it seeming as though Hilton is still perhaps a week away from a return to action.

3. What would you say the Colts’ biggest strength has been this year? What has been the team’s biggest weakness? How can the Jaguars take advantage of said weakness?

Chris: The Colts have been somewhat inconsistent in terms of what they’ve done well this year. They’ve won and lost in a variety of ways, but the one constant so far has been Marlon Mack. Mack has had his best year as a pro in 2019, and he’s done so despite some inconsistent performances from the line in front of him.

Perhaps his biggest struggles have come recently, when opposing defenses knew that the decimated receiver room and the injury to Brissett would limit their passing attack. Even so, he’s on pace to surpass 1,300 yards rushing this season, which would be a career high by a wide margin.

As far as weaknesses go, I’ve already mentioned it. The receivers have been a major source of frustration. Injuries have absolutely killed them, with Hilton missing time in addition to the early loss of Devin Funchess. Rookie Parris Campbell went down with a broken hand, and left Zach Pascal as their number one receiver. Jacoby Brissett needs to be supported by a talented receiver room to excel, and he simply hasn’t had that this season so far. The good news is that the Colts are getting healthier there. The bad news for the Colts? That upswing in health probably doesn’t impact this game.

That should allow the Jaguars to key off on the run game as many teams have, and force the Colts receiver depth or tight ends to prove they can beat them.

4. The AFC South has been wild this season. All four teams are still in the playoff hunt as of right now. How do you see the division shaking out by season’s end? Which AFC South teams make the playoffs?

Chris: It is tough to see anyone besides the Texans finishing atop the AFC South. Their level of offensive talent is far above the other teams in the division, and the Colts threw away the lead they had in losses to bad teams. That said, they face a really tough schedule and any team could get hot and win the division from this point with so many divisional games ahead.

I am not sure the AFC South can get two teams in the playoffs. The Steelers and Raiders are both surging (editor’s note, Pittsburgh’s loss last night helps both the Jaguars and Colts), and the Bills are a team that looks primed for a wildcard spot as well. Getting to the playoffs likely means the Texans need to stumble on the back stretch of the season, and that makes this game even more critical. The winner gives themselves the best shot to get back in that race. They’ll still need a lot to go right, but a win Sunday is a start.

5. Is there a particular matchup (or matchups) you are excited for on Sunday? Why?

Chris: I will be watching the Colts’ offensive line against the Jaguars front seven very closely Sunday. This has been an underwhelming group in 2019, and we need to see major signs that they were just in a slump and can improve. They are a talented group but have struggled with inconsistent performances. Turning in a strong performance both in pass protection and in the running game would be a big indicator that this team might have further to go yet this season. If they can’t do better it would likely mean the team’s struggles will continue.

Bonus: Score prediction?

Chris: I expect this to be a low scoring affair dominated by defense on both sides.

21-17 Colts

A big thank you to Chris for provided valuable thoughts and insights into Indianapolis and Sunday’s matchup. You can follow him on Twitter, and of course to keep up with the division rival Colts, follow Stampede Blue as well.

You can catch my crossover piece on Stampede Blue here.