JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If given the choice of who to play in his first game with Indianapolis, quarterback Philip Rivers probably would have picked Jacksonville.
The longtime Chargers star has been close to unstoppable against the Jaguars.
Rivers has won seven of his past eight starts against them, topping 30 points six times. He has 20 touchdown passes and just one interception against Jacksonville since 2010. The only opponents he has more TD passes against in the past decade are former division rivals Denver, Kansas City and the Raiders — teams he played twice a year annually.
The Colts probably didn’t even know about Rivers’ success against Jacksonville when they signed him to a one-year, $25 million contract in March. The Jaguars sure did.
“Obviously, he’s talented,” Jacksonville defensive co-ordinator Todd Wash said. “He’s had success against a lot of teams. He gets himself in a good place. He’s very smart in what he does. Very seldom does he make poor decisions.”
Rivers will make his Colts debut Sunday when they open the season at Jacksonville, one of two Week 1 games that will include fans. It’s a rematch from last year’s finale, which Jacksonville won 38-20.
This one will have new faces on both sidelines, none more prominent than Rivers.
Indy traded for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and signed cornerback Xavier Rhodes to bolster a defence that gave up more than 30 points in four of its final five games last season.
Jacksonville brought in former head coaches Ben McAdoo (quarterbacks) and Jay Gruden (offensive co-ordinator ) in hopes of getting second-year starter Gardner Minshew to take his game to another level. The team also drafted receiver Laviska Shenault and signed tight end Tyler Eifert to give Minshew more help.
Jacksonville’s defence has undergone more change, with an emphasis on better stopping the run. Indy gained nearly 400 yards on the ground combined in the two meetings in 2019. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert is the key to getting it turned around.
The Jaguars have been mostly mocked in recent weeks for dumping three potential starters: running back Leonard Fournette, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and safety Ronnie Harrison. The moves thrust undrafted rookie James Robinson, first-round draft pick K’Lavon Chaisson and journeyman Josh Jones into bigger roles.
All eyes will be on Rivers, though, the 38-year-old veteran tasked with getting the Colts back to the playoffs in what could be his final NFL season. It starts against a team he's as played as well as anyone.
“I think you know what it is going to feel like and what it’s going to be,” Rivers said. “It’s going to be an NFL football game and we’ve played in a bunch of those. … Ultimately, when the ball kicks off, nobody is thinking about, ‘Wow, we didn’t get a preseason game,’ or ‘Can you believe the crowd is not here?’
“I don’t think it will be that much different.”
The Jaguars are allowing a maximum of 25% capacity at home games in 2020, meaning about 16,500 fans could be on hand for the opener. But officials don't expect nearly that many amid a pandemic and such low expectations for the team.
Fans and stadium employees are required to wear face coverings at all times, except while eating or drinking, seats are grouped in socially distanced pods.
Indy is 1-9 in its past 10 openers, including six straight losses. The Colts also have lost seven straight openers on the road, a trend coach Frank Reich hopes to change.
“We need to do everything we can do to get that turned around,” he said. “We have a lot to prove and we know this is a good football team. We want to start the year off right with a win on the road against a division opponent — a good team.”
Jacksonville lost three running backs in the past two weeks, placing Ryquell Armstead on the COVID-19 list for the second time in five weeks and Devine Ozigbo (hamstring) on injured reserve just days after waiving three-year starter Leonard Fournette.
Indy kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who won the job that Adam Vinatieri held for the previous 14 years, has as many wins at TIAA Bank Field as Gardner Minshew. Blankenship won three straight over rival Florida while playing for Georgia.
“I’m hoping I can just be a cool customer,” Blankenship said.
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed.
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Mark Long, The Associated Press