Two young AFC teams face off on Thursday Night Football as Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts travel to Jacksonville to take on Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars.
The Colts (5-3) aren't supposed to be this good, at least not yet. Luck has been phenomenal, however, and the coaching staff almost immediately took the kid gloves off of him. Some of the throws he makes down the field showcase elite arm talent and fearless decision making.
Luck is still a rookie, though, and there is still a severe lack of talent around him, but the Colts are in great position for 2012 and the future.
The Jaguars (1-7) are on the opposite side of the spectrum. While they had high hopes under new owner Shad Khan, it is clear the talent on the roster just isn't up to snuff. Big changes need to be made, and it could start with replacing Gene Smith as GM.
If Smith is gone, Gabbert may be playing for his job as well. Gabbert has improved this season, but he has as many turnovers as he has touchdowns, and that's a big part of the Jaguars' seven losses this season.
So, which team wins on Thursday night?
Key Storyline: Are the Colts Playoff Bound in 2012?
If the season ended today, the Colts would be a fifth seed. Take a second to just let that sink in. The Colts were terrible last year—like, historically bad. They were a joke. People talked about Peyton Manning winning the MVP award just by being injured and therefore emphasizing his importance.
Put Dan Orlovsky or Curtis Painter back on this team and they would be right where they were, but Luck has this team in the playoff hunt. Kudos also to Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky, who have done a lot to improve the defense in 2012.
The Jaguars are one of those teams that the Colts need to beat if they want to end up in the playoffs at the end of the season. The schedule isn't great down the road. They have to face the Patriots, the Lions and the Texans twice. Losing to the Jaguars would put them severely behind the eight ball.
Keys for the Indianapolis Colts
While Luck is going to be the straw that stirs the drink week in and week out for the Colts, it might be prudent for the Colts to dial back his responsibilities against the Jaguars. The Jaguars don't have a lot of sacks on the season (like, very many at all), but they have the talent to pressure the passer—especially against the Colts' terrible offensive line.
On defense, the Colts need to stack the box and force Gabbert to beat them. He can put up big numbers if he has time, but he's also going to make a few mistakes and miss some passes as well.
If the Colts stop the run and get the Jaguars into a couple 3rd-and-longs, they can dial up the blitz and put this game away early. If Rashad Jennings is allowed to run all day, however, they could lose this one and lose a lot of hope for the rest of the season.
Keys for the Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars need to play mistake-free football to beat anyone, period. If the turnovers, mental errors and drops start piling up, they would have trouble no matter who the opponent is.
Who will win on Thursday night?
Schematically, they need to find ways to get the ball into the hands of Jennings rather than just running right up the gut. By neutralizing the Colts' pass rush with screens, draws and swing passes, they benefit from Jennings' playmaking ability and keep the Colts off balance. That can also help get Gabbert into a rhythm.
On defense, they need to find some of the swagger they had last season, and the Colts are a great team to help them get their groove back. Against both the run and the pass, it's as easy as winning battles up front, and they can throw Luck off his game and keep the running game bottled up. This is strength against weakness.
Bold Prediction: Vick Ballard Will Rush For 100 Yards
Ballard hasn't done this yet in his young NFL career, but (as I said above) the Colts should be somewhat wary against letting the Jaguars' pass-rushers tee off on Luck. With Donald Brown out and Ballard's role increasing, he should get enough chances.
With the Jaguars' seeming inability to tackle, he should be able to get a couple long runs to pad his total.
Player of the Game Prediction: Andrew Luck
As good as Ballard should be, Luck will be even better. He'll have to pick his spots, but there isn't anyone on the Jaguars who can match up with Reggie Wayne, and Luck should be good for a couple of touchdowns.
Final Score Prediction: Colts 27, Jaguars 16
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."