INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning and the Colts have started their playoff run a few weeks early. They really had no choice.
Manning had two more touchdown passes Sunday, avoided throwing any interceptions for the second straight game, and led the Colts to a season-saving 34-24 victory over Jacksonville that puts them back on track to make the postseason.
"Since that Cowboys game, we knew we really had four must-win games and we've won two of them," Manning said. "It's a good win, but it's just one game and we've got to be able to do that again next week."
Make that next week at Oakland and the following week when Tennessee visits Lucas Oil Stadium. Win both and the Colts (8-6) take their seventh AFC South title in eight years and deal yet another frustrating blow to the ever-chasing Jaguars.
For the Colts (8-6), Sunday was essentially win or forget about the playoffs. The victory moved them into a tie for the AFC South lead with the Jags (8-6) and squared the head-to-head tiebreaker, giving Indy the inside track to the division crown.
For Jacksonville, it was more frustration against the team it has been chasing for nearly a decade. A victory would have clinched the Jags' first AFC South crown, and now they'll need help to win it.
Manning wasn't going to let the defending AFC champs go down without a fight, and the four-time league MVP delivered one of his most efficient performances of the season. He was 29 of 39 for 229 yards, 71 yards short of breaking Dan Marino's record for most 300-yard games in a career (63).
The record, of course, didn't matter to Manning.
What did was getting more help from a suddenly resurgent ground game.
Indy finished with 155 yards rushing, its third-highest total of the season. Donald Brown scored on a 43-yard run and ran 14 times for a career-high 129 yards, the first 100-yard game of his two-year career.
"When you're getting to the second level, and that's the first time you're getting touched, that makes my job a lot easier," Brown said. "We just want to help complement the passing game any way we can."
The game went nothing like the Jags needed.
Maurice Jones-Drew rushed 15 times for 46 yards, ending his streak of consecutive 100-yard games at six with his worst game ever against Indy.
The time of possession was split almost perfectly in half.
Jacksonville turned the ball over on downs at its 38 early in the second half, and when it had a chance to tie the score by recovering an onside kick with less than 2 minutes to go, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler sprinted 41 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory.
"Really, for us, it's disappointing that we didn't close the deal here," Jags coach Jack Del Rio said. "We really expected right now to be in here with a division crown captured. It didn't happen."
The old Manning was the primary reason.
He opened the game with a 7-yard TD pass to Austin Collie, and went back to Collie for a 27-yard TD after Josh Scobee made a 22-yard field goal for the Jags. That gave Indy a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Jacksonville closed to 14-10 when Mike Thomas scored on a 78-yard punt return, a play on which the Colts contended he signaled for a fair catch.
It didn't matter. Two plays after the Jags turned over the ball on downs in the third quarter, Brown found a seam and raced down the left sideline for the 43-yard score to make it 21-10. The Colts then converted two Jags turnovers into field goals, giving Indy a 27-17 lead, before the Jags finally counterpunched.
David Garrard threw a 1-yard pass to Mike Sims-Walker right after the 2-minute warning to make it 27-24, and the Jags had a chance to rally if they recovered the onside kick.
"We've been very strong in closing out ballgames and taking advantage of opportunities," Del Rio said. "I really and truly believed at the end that we would somehow find a way to get that onside kick and go win the game."
Instead, Hagler scored and Indy stayed in position to win yet another division title.1 comment on this story
"It's all about Oakland this week," Manning said. "If you take a step back these two wins won't mean much, so we hope we can continue to build on the momentum."
Indy's celebration was tarnished by another frightening scene involving Collie. The receiver was injured late in the first half when the forearm of linebacker Daryl Smith hit Collie in the head. Collie lay motionless for several minutes before sitting up and eventually walked off the field with a concussion. He did not return.
It's the third time since Nov. 7 that Collie has left a game early because of a concussion or concussion-like symptoms.
NOTES: In 20 games against the Colts, Jacksonville has never won two in a row. ... Manning's 39 attempts gave him 608 for the season, a career high, with two games left. His previous high was 591 attempts in 2001. ... Before Collie's injury, Manning threw his way 10 times. Collie caught eight balls for 87 yards and both scores. ... Reggie Wayne caught five passes for 44 yards, giving him 99 receptions for the season. ... Garrard was 24 of 38 for 294 yards with two TDs, both to Sims-Walker, and one interception.