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Colts, Saints becoming pride fighters in perfection pursuit

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Here's the one dynamic a lot of us could be overlooking with the Saints' and Colts' pursuit of perfection.

Pride.

"You know, in this league, guys are prideful," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told me this week. "That is something that can never be overlooked or overvalued."

While the debate will continue over the season's final three weeks as to whether both unbeaten teams should rest starters, pride is something inside every player and each coach that won't concede maximum effort or winning. It's what got these guys to the NFL and it's why the Saints and Colts are knocking on the door of history.

Eric Gay / Associated Press
The Patriots had their perfect season spoiled by Michael Strahan and the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
13-0 starts in NFL history
Year Team Start Record Playoffs
2007 New England 16-0 16-0 Lost Super Bowl XLII
1972 Miami 14-0 14-0 Won Super Bowl VII
2005 Indianapolis 13-0 14-2 Lost in divisional round
1998 Denver 13-0 14-2 Won Super Bowl XXXIII
1934 Chicago 13-0 13-0 Lost NFL Championship

And on the issue of pride, few things challenge a player's or coach's pride more than fending off an opponent whose crowning moment could be spoiling that push for special acclaim.

This is where Spagnuolo's perspective brings things into focus.

In 2007, he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. In Week 17, with nothing to gain, his team faced the 15-0 New England Patriots, who had established its playoff perch and just about everything else except that perfect regular season.

"That was a unique game," Spagnuolo recalled. "We had clinched the wild-card berth and we knew we were going to be playing Tampa Bay. Quite honestly, having been with Andy Reid (in Philadelphia) I was all for resting our guys and getting ready for Tampa Bay.

"But (Giants coach) Tom Coughlin and the players, (Michael) Strahan, Osi (Umenyiora), Eli (Manning), they wanted to play the Patriots. They wanted to beat them. Coughlin had a plan and that was to pretty much go with the starters and make a decision at halftime. We get into halftime and it's close and it's a great game. You could feel the intensity. It was a game. The guys wanted to play. So we played.

"All the talk was about the Patriots, and our guys wanted to end it, but then New England stuck with it, too. They wanted to win and they did win (38-35). That was an incredible game, a unique game."

As Spagnuolo spoke, nearly two years removed and entrenched in weekly losses as head coach of the Rams, you could sense how much emotion that situation presented. And now we can understand why Saints quarterback Drew Brees came out last week and emphatically said he wanted to go 16-0, and why Peyton Manning made an impassioned plea with his coach for playing time. It's not a record thing. It's a pride thing.

Losing -- especially when you're used to winning -- stings, no matter how meaningless it might seem in the overall big picture.

Colts, Saints on NFL Network
The Colts look to go to 14-0 as they play the Jaguars Thursday night on NFL Network, while the Saints try to remain undefeated when they host the Cowboys on Saturday night. Follow both games with live look-ins on NFL.com  More ...

As we move closer to the pair of NFL Network games this week featuring the two unbeatens -- Indianapolis at Jacksonville Thursday night and Dallas at New Orleans Saturday night, the energy will start to ramp up.

Colts coach Jim Caldwell says he's staying with his healthy starters for Thursday's game, but did not commit to how long they would play. Don't expect Saints coach Sean Payton to ease off the throttle, either. He doesn't like to lose a down, let alone a game, especially to Dallas, where he used to coach.

In fact, the Cowboys should bring out the best in the Saints, as they've risen to roast every big-time challenge that has presented itself this season (the then-unbeaten Jets, the Giants, the Eagles, and the Patriots). And if New Orleans doesn't bring out the best in Dallas, then the Cowboys are through.

After playing Dallas, the Saints face division foes Tampa Bay and Carolina, non-playoff teams that seemingly should be layups and perfect opponents to rest players while winning out. The Colts follow up Jacksonville with the Jets, who are still in playoff contention, and the Bills. Still, those are teams Indy should have no problem beating.

But it won't be easy. As the hunter, something changes about your team's character when facing an unbeaten opponent. Washington, St. Louis, even undermanned Atlanta almost wrestled wins from the Saints. Indianapolis had to stage fourth-quarter rallies for five straight weeks to get to this point. As the hunted, no matter what spin you try to put on it in terms of prepping for the playoffs, there will be a point where just the thought of losing doesn't quite feel acceptable, so players will compete at a high level.

And for teams like the Cowboys, Jaguars and Jets, ending the Saints' and Colts' winning streaks could do wonders for their seasons -- and postseasons, if they're fortunate enough to get there.

"That loss to the Patriots helped us a whole lot," Spagnuolo said. "We didn't lose again after that."

The sting of losing to New England in that heated, hyped finale re-energized the Giants, who went on a special run through the playoffs as the visitor in each game to earn another shot at New England in the Super Bowl, where they ended the Patriots' bid at uncharted history with a 17-14 upset victory.

"I was so focused on winning the Super Bowl that I never thought about the fact that we actually had two chances to end their undefeated season," Spagnuolo said. "If I had to pick one, I'd rather we lost the game we did and won the game we did."

Spagnoulo could be a part of history again, albeit more as a footnote. His 1-12 Rams had the honor of losing to Indianapolis (42-6) and New Orleans (28-23) in a three-game span bridging October and November. So he knows something about what these teams possess and why they can both finish the regular season 16-0.

"They both have great quarterbacks," he said. "They're both players you can win a game with at any time and in any game. Both defenses also play well. If you have a good defense, but especially if you have a quarterback, you have a chance. At this point of the season, after 13 games, what's important is the leadership at the top and the quarterbacks. That will be the key.

"It's got to be hard to win 16 straight. I don't care who you are because you are going to be up and down during a season, and the fact that these teams have managed to win despite being down at times shows just how good they are. All I know is I don't want to see either one of them any time soon."

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