JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a season in which LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander have dominated the headlines and monopolized most of the rhetoric revolving around the possibility of a tailback capturing the most valuable player award in 2005, it seems the Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James has largely been a forgotten man.
Except, of course, to the Colts.
On Sunday, as Indianapolis moved to 13-0 and to within three victories of immortality as a team, it was the veteran tailback who provided the winning "Edge" in a 26-18 victory that the Jacksonville Jaguars made semi-interesting with a frenetic, late-game rally. Just like those sparkling caps that James reveals when he smiles, he is 24-karat, teammates acknowledged after the game. Unlike his gold incisors, though, his style has become more functional than flashy.
But functional was plenty good enough as the undefeated Colts completed a Holy Grail trifecta, winning their third straight division title, securing a bye for the first week of the playoffs, and guaranteeing themselves the much-coveted home-field advantage throughout the AFC bracket.
Certainly the other two-thirds of the Colts' offensive "Big Three" had huge outings; quarterback Peyton Manning (24-of-36 for 324 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 113.7 efficiency rating) and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (six receptions for 137 yards, including touchdown grabs of 9 and 65 yards) took advantage of a Jacksonville secondary that tried to play an aggressive combination coverage scheme. It was James, though, who represented the relentless, hammering approach that the Colts demonstrated for most of the afternoon.
"To me, the guy is the greatest, because he does so many things for us," said center Jeff Saturday when asked about James and the manner in which he permitted Indianapolis to dictate the pace against Jacksonville's defense. "He runs the ball, he catches the ball, and what people probably don't realize is that he's a great blocker in [pass] protection. I mean, we don't play with two backs, because that's not our style. So he's back there all by himself, he's asked to do a lot and he's got a lot of responsibilities. Today was a good example of how he handles himself."
James carried 30 times for 93 yards as the Colts, having heard all week from the Jags about how they intended to control the tempo, settled into a grind-it-out mode that emphasized patience. James also had nine receptions for 61 yards, meaning he touched the ball on 39 of 74 snaps, accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Colts' 399 yards and registered 10 of their 25 first downs.
It marked the seventh time this season, and the fifth game in the last six, in which James logged 25 or more carries. With three games remaining, he already has exactly as many rushes as he recorded in 16 games last season and is only 53 shy of his career-high 387 attempts in 2000. James is on pace to rush 411 times, which would break the league record of 410 set by Atlanta's Jamal Anderson in 1998 but almost certainly will not challenge the NFL mark because of coach Tony Dungy's plans to scale back playing time for some key starters.
Asked how many times he felt like he carried the ball Sunday, James said: "I don't know. It feels like maybe 10 times, even though I know it was more, right? But they can give it to me every play if that's what they want to do, or that's what it takes, because I'll be ready. I mean, for this point of the season, I feel really good. I've got no nicks, no injuries, no pain."
Instead, the seven-year veteran, whose future in Indianapolis beyond this year is still uncertain because he signed only a one-year qualifying offer for a "franchise" running back this spring, inflicted plenty of pain on Jacksonville's defense.
James had just three runs for more than 5 yards and his longest run of the day, for 20 yards in the third quarter, was just his fifth gain of 20 or more yards all season. But this is how James erodes a defense now: He bleeds yardage in chunks, principally running the Colts' trademark off-tackle stretch play, and finishes nearly every carry hard. His long runs have dramatically diminished since the knee surgery that limited him to just a half-dozen appearances in 2001, but James is more content to take it right at a defense instead of taking it to the house.
That kind of patience allowed Indy's offense to eat up yards in bits but also permitted the Colts to eat up the clock on most possessions. There was certainly no lack of irony there since the Jags chirped all last week about keeping Manning tethered to the sideline with a running game that was supposed to have been bolstered by the return of star tailback Fred Taylor to the lineup. But the Colts offense, mostly because of James, turned the tables.
Of the Colts' six scoring drives -- Harrison's two touchdown catches and four field goals by Mike Vanderjagt -- all but one included seven snaps or more and three scoring series each took more than five minutes off the clock. Only the 65-yard connection to Harrison in the second quarter, on which the Colts' star torched standout cornerback Rashean Mathis with a brilliant double-move on a stop-and-go route, really registered as a lightning-quick score. Harrison also burned Mathis deep up the right sideline in the second quarter, hauling in a 24-yard pass to convert a key third-and-17 play from the Colts' 5-yard line, on a series that ended in a botched fake field goal.
"I think against that defense," said James, "you have to be more patient. They won't give you a lot of big plays. They don't make it easy. But if you show that you're just going to take the plays they give you and that you're not going to panic and are [content] just to keep moving the ball and making first downs, it gets a little frustrating for them."
And, make no mistake, the Jaguars, yet the latest team to view a game with the Colts as a kind of coming-of-age matchup, showed plenty of frustration. On the second-quarter series that ended in the Colts' failed fake field-goal try, with punter Hunter Smith trying to hit deep snapper Justin Snow in the corner of the end zone, Jacksonville was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct (against coach Jack Del Rio) and a pair of personal fouls (on middle linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive tackle John Henderson).
On the penalty against Henderson, he blatantly bounced James' head into the turf several times after a short run. It was one of the few times all day that a Jacksonville defender got a shot at James and actually delivered a blow. For the Jaguars to become the mature team Del Rio wants it to be, his players will have to display more self-control, obviously. And for the Jaguars to have defeated the Colts -- the two teams always seem to play close ones, because Jacksonville has no fear of Indianapolis, with their last eight meetings being decided by an average of 6.3 points since 2002 -- they would have had to succeed in controlling James.
Which they failed to do.
"He made a lot of plays today," said Peterson, who spent the first four seasons of his NFL career with the Colts before signing with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent in '03. "Not necessarily big plays. Just a lot of meaningful plays."
Many of those meaningful plays came with James as a receiver, and his nine catches were the most he has posted since getting 11 on Oct. 21, 2002, against Pittsburgh, a stretch of 50 outings. Six of the receptions, the longest of which was for 12 yards, resulted in first downs. James now has 39 catches in 13 games, which projects to 48 for the year, shy of his career average of 52 receptions per year. Only in his truncated 2001 season, when he missed 10 games with a torn ACL, has James caught fewer than 51 passes in a campaign.
That receiving ability seemed lost on the Jacksonville defense Sunday but certainly not on Manning, who entered the game feeling that James would play a pretty substantial role in the Colts' passing attack.
One of the coverage schemes the Jaguars prefer is one in which the safeties are off in a Cover 2 look but play what Manning refers to as "man-ish" underneath, with their corners trying to get a jam on the wideouts at the line of scrimmage, and take away some of the soft crossing patterns the Colts like to run. It is a strategy that has been successful against Indianapolis in the past and, to some extent, was again Sunday.
"But when they play like that," Manning said, "the one guy you know should be able to get a pretty clean release is Edge coming out of the backfield. So, yeah, I sensed as we got ready for this game that he would be a factor in the passing game. He made some great plays -- the one near the end of the [first] half, where he just takes it and goes for 12 yards, because he turns it north up the sideline, was a big play. But that's what we kind of expect from him even if other [tailbacks] are getting more attention this year."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.