As a man who has spent his entire life having his moods and professional reality beholden to the bizarre bounces of an oblong ball, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay takes nothing for granted. While most of the football-watching world assumes the Colts will go into Jacksonville and steamroll the lowly Jaguars on Sunday, which is Indy’s clearest and most obvious path to the NFL postseason, Irsay has suffered too many miserable moments at TIAA Bank Field to feel secure.
The Colts, after all, have lost six consecutive road games to their AFC South rivals — five in Jacksonville and one (in 2016) in London, the Jaguars’ de facto second home — despite the fact that only one of those Jags teams would win more than five other games the entire season. Irsay doesn’t believe in superstition, but if there’s a logical explanation for such a streak, the 62-year-old owner would love to hear it.
“These things develop in our league — these crazy, quirky things that don’t make any sense,” Irsay told me Monday night. “(General manager) Chris Ballard said, ‘I think we ought to change the hotel.’ I said, ‘I don’t think that’s gonna cut it.’
“I think we’ve got to face right up to it. You square up against that demon and you have to defeat it. There’s no other way around it. You have to go through it.”
The scars run deep for Irsay, embedded even in the Colts’ Super Bowl-winning season of 2006. That December, Indy went to Jacksonville and suffered a shocking 44-17 defeat to the Jaguars, causing most people — including, apparently, their team president at the time — to write them off.
“We went down there and gave up 375 rushing yards, and Bill Polian turns to me in the locker room and says, ‘It’s over,’” Irsay recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean it’s over?’ He said, ‘We’ve got too many holes.’ But Tony Dungy said, ‘We can tweak some things and it’ll be OK.’ Leave it to the Hall of Famer — that’s exactly what happened.”
As for the current streak, Irsay is similarly confounded. Three seasons ago in Jacksonville, the Colts were on a five-game winning streak and the Jags were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak when the two teams took the field.
Said Irsay: “Even with Andrew (Luck) in 2018, when we were on that streak, we went down there and scored zero points. They beat us 6-0. You figure that out. Last year, we went down there (in Week 1) and lost to them, and I said, ‘They’re not gonna win another game the rest of the year.’”
Those Jags didn’t, finishing 1-15. This year’s Jags (2-14) are an unmitigated mess, guided by an interim head coach (in the wake of the Urban Meyer Debacle), coming off a 50-10 defeat to the Patriots and closing in on the No. 1 overall pick for a second consecutive draft.
On paper, this matchup looks like a joke. You’ll have to forgive Irsay for taking the prospect of losing very, very seriously.
“We struggle down there,” he said, “but it shouldn’t be any other way. For some reason, it seems to be the place we need to go for our baptism. I find it symbolic and interesting. Let us go down there and see if we can face this mysterious demon that seems to lay down there in North Florida, and slay it.”
Will the Colts get it done? On Sunday, Irsay and everyone else will get an answer. In the meantime, here are our usual around-the-league queries, presented in a stratified sequencing that reflects our view of the current state of the NFL.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3, Last week: 1): Given the current state of the Packers’ running game, should we be giving embattled GM Brian Gutekunst some retroactive credit for drafting A.J. Dillon and Josiah Deguara in 2020?
2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4, LW: 4): Had the Rams not pulled out that dramatic victory over the Ravens, doesn’t it feel like the in-huddle skirmish between Jalen Ramsey and Taylor Rapp would have been revealed as something more significant than “a little bit of a mix-up”?
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4, LW: 5): If Antonio Brown’s ankle was, in fact, too injured for him to play in Sunday’s game, should we credit the receiver for displaying admirable mobility while doing shirtless end-zone jumping jacks and prancing off the field?
6. Dallas Cowboys (11-5, LW: 3): Nothing like buttering up the officials before the postseason, eh?
7. Buffalo Bills (10-6, LW: 8): Should we be paying more attention to the fact that they’re leading the league in point differential (albeit while having lost to the Jaguars)?
8. Arizona Cardinals (11-5, LW: 11): Whose house?
9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, LW: 10): If Joe Burrow keeps playing like he has recently, will there be another cigar-smoking celebration come February?
10. San Francisco 49ers (9-7, LW: 9): Will Kyle Shanahan show Sean McVay his six-pack on Sunday, or will the Niners suffer a gut punch that knocks them out of the postseason?
11. Indianapolis Colts (9-7, LW: 7): Just like they drew it up, huh?
12. New England Patriots (10-6, LW: 12): Did the Pats drop 50 because they faced the music or because they faced the Jags?
13. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7, LW: 14): Isn’t it kind of cool that a quintessential Week 1 Monday Night Football matchup will be the Sunday Night Football finale with a playoff berth on the line?
14. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7, LW: 15): Seriously, dude?
15. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, LW: 16): Does this add new meaning to the term “collapsing pocket” — and what’s with the fan who seized this opportunity to take a selfie with the winning QB?
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8, LW: 13): When it comes to heartbreaking defeats, can we agree that the 2021 Ravens are super?
17. New Orleans Saints (8-8, LW: 18): When I joined Cam Jordan for that pre-draft dinner with then-Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff more than a decade ago, did any of us anticipate how consistently he’d devour opposing offenses?
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1, LW: 22): Even by NFL officiating standards, this was a terrible miss, right?
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8, LW: 17): Will Sunday’s game against the Patriots be Tua Tagovailoa’s final start for the Dolphins?
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-9, LW: 20): Does anyone else get the sneaking suspicion that the Vikings’ current head coach does not view Kellen Mond as the franchise’s quarterback of the future?
22. Denver Broncos (7-9, LW: 21): Does Melvin Gordon truly believe that, talent-wise, the Broncos are “a Super Bowl team” — and is it fair to assume that’s not a strong endorsement of the coaching staff?
23. Washington Football Team (6-10, LW: 23): If I return as the sideline reporter for Washington’s preseason games in 2022, will you judge me if I stand a little bit further from the field than I did this past summer?
24. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, LW: 24): Yo, National Football League: How dumb was this sequence?
26. Seattle Seahawks (6-10, LW: 26): So, evidently, Rashaad Penny has, in fact, come to life — and does that mean the Seahawks will offer him many pennies to stay in Seattle?
27. Carolina Panthers (5-11, LW: 27): Will “unhappy and embarrassed” be the title of the Panthers’ 2021 highlight video, or would that be a bit much?
28. Houston Texans (4-12, LW: 28): Is anyone else pleasantly surprised that Jack Easterby and Nick Caserio apparently aren’t planning to fire David (“The Fall Guy”) Culley after one futile season?
29. New York Jets (4-12, LW: 30): If the Bucs hadn’t pulled off a last-minute comeback Sunday, would Tom Brady have added a two-word expletive to his signature of this football for Brandin Echols?
30. Detroit Lions (2-13-1, LW: 29): How did Amon-Ra St. Brown last until the fourth round of last April’s draft?
31. New York Giants (4-12, LW: 31): Did Joe Judge actually think he and other Patriots coaches “were getting fired” while sitting at 6-2 midway through the 2018 season, or was he merely in the midst of an epic exhibit of his oratorical inanity?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14, LW: 32): Asking once again — how in hell did this team defeat the Buffalo Bills in November?