Peyton Manning's knee injury. A disappointing 3-4 start. Playing without safety Bob Sanders, running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Gary Brackett and receiver Marvin Harrison.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Peyton Manning's knee injury. A disappointing 3-4 start. Playing without safety Bob Sanders, running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Gary Brackett and receiver Marvin Harrison.
Given everything the Indianapolis Colts have overcome this season, it's no surprise how easily they handled whatever emotion the Jacksonville Jaguars got from Richard Collier's return Thursday night.
It certainly helped that Manning was nearly perfect.
Manning completed his first 17 passes, picked apart Jacksonville's secondary and led the Colts to their eighth consecutive win and seventh straight postseason berth. He finished 29-for-34 for a season-high 364 yards and three touchdowns, and the Colts secured the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs with a 31-24 victory over the Jaguars.
"That's what he does," Jaguars safety Reggie Nelson said.
Actually, Manning was better than usual.
He led the Colts back from deficits of 14-0 and 24-14, spreading the ball around the field with pinpoint passes. He set up Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal that tied the game at 24 late in the fourth before the Colts (11-4) won it with two big defensive plays.
Keiwan Ratliff intercepted a pass from David Garrard and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown with 4:48 remaining, and Dwight Freeney sacked Garrard on the final play after the Jaguars got to the Colts 7-yard line. Coach Jack Del Rio said the Jaguars (5-10), long removed from the playoff picture, would have attempted a 2-point conversion to win it had they scored.
Freeney didn't let it happen.
"Just can't take a sack right there," Garrard said. "When you get in that situation, you want to at least throw the ball away and give yourself another chance."
The Colts won without Harrison (hamstring), Addai (shoulder) and Brackett (leg) but Sanders returned after missing four of the last five games.
Here's more good news for Indy: The victory will allow coach Tony Dungy to rest many starters next week against Tennessee, giving them as many as 17 days of rest heading into the playoffs.
The Jaguars lost for the seventh time in the past nine games and fell to 2-6 at home this season. This one may have been more emotionally draining than any of the others.
Collier, a 6-foot-7 offensive linemen paralyzed from the waist down following a shooting in early September, returned to the field for the first time and was recognized during pregame ceremonies. He was an honorary team captain for the coin toss.
Fans treated him to a standing ovation and chanted his name. His teammates fed off the energy, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions and leading 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Manning spoiled it, though.
With his 17 straight completions to open the game, he extended his overall streak to 23 — the second-longest in NFL history. Donovan McNabb set the record of 24 straight in 2004.
"Peyton Manning is unbelievable," Dungy said. "He put a lot of it on his shoulders and kept us in it. He played unbelievably under the circumstances. ... It was an MVP performance for sure."
Dallas Clark finished with eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Reggie Wayne had seven receptions for 108 yards and a score. Dominic Rhodes, held to 27 yards rushing, was much more dangerous out of the backfield with six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
"The best thing we did tonight, which was a point of interest, was to finish touchdowns in the red zone," Manning said. "We got touchdowns and didn't have to settle for too many field goals."
The Jaguars had to settle for another close loss, falling to 4-6 in games decided by seven points or less. It's the most encouraging sign that the franchise might be able to turn things around next season.
Garrard finished 28-for-41 for 329 yards and a score. He added a rushing touchdown. Jones-Drew ran 20 times for 91 yards and caught seven passes for 71 yards.
"We're building for the future," Garrard said. "This season wasn't what we wanted it to be, but we have some things that we can build on. It just shows our future is bright and we can play with anybody."
Notes: Jones-Drew bruised his left knee on the final drive, but Del Rio said he should be OK. ... Vinatieri missed a 30-yard field goal in the first half. ... Jaguars LB Mike Peterson, who probably played his last game in Jacksonville, kissed the field during pregame introductions. ... Tight ends for both teams combined to catch 22 passes for 270 yards and one score.