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Colts sacrifice perfection, take chance with special season


INDIANAPOLIS -- Six weeks ago, here at Lucas Oil Stadium, Patriots coach Bill Belichick went for a first down from two yards away, deep in his own territory with time winding down when the percentages told him he should punt. His team failed to follow through on his decision and opened the door for the Colts to pull out a 35-34 victory and win their ninth game of a 14-game streak to open the season.

At this same venue in Week 16, with far more time and many more variables in play, the Colts made a far more calculated, but equally controversial, decision to pull many of their starters in the third quarter against a Jets team that was fighting for its playoff life.

In theory, it seemed okay. Diminish the risk of injury to key players so they'll be healthy for the playoffs, where the No. 1 seed had already been secured. Can you imagine if Peyton Manning got hurt in a game that, in the big picture, didn't mean much?

In reality, though, this didn't seem like what meaningful football was supposed to be about. The Colts surrendered a five-point lead and a shot at going 16-0 in the regular season as rookie quarterback Curtis Painter couldn't quite fill the role of Manning and Hank Baskett couldn't be Reggie Wayne in the Jets' 29-15 upset.

Manning, Wayne and others were safe and sound on the sideline. However, watching them sacrifice possible perfection for the unknown in the postseason was like imagining Sinatra clearing his throat in the middle of New York, New York so he could belt out the final note with more range.

Manning made sure that there was no Favre/Childress-like issues when Caldwell told him he was done halfway through the third quarter. Manning said that he was prepped for the possibility all week, so when it came he wasn't taken aback or insulted. Manning knew that once he was taken out that he wasn't going back in.

The loyal fans in the building booed the team's decision. Team president Bill Polian reiterated that it was never this team's goal to go 16-0. But doesn't practice make perfect? Isn't perfection the goal? Yes, the Colts earned the right to do what they did and yes, the Patriots' perfect regular season in 2007 didn't translate to a Super Bowl championship, but who's to say Indianapolis' special season wouldn't?

It worked for the '72 Dolphins, who, once again, get to celebrate in their own special way.

Said Polian: "The perfect season was never an issue with us. We've said it time and time again. It is somebody else's issue. Not ours. That was of no concern."

Kevin Terrell / Associated Press
Since 2004, Peyton Manning and the Colts have had only one season in which they entered the final week with something on the line.
Colts with nothing to play for (since 2004)
Year
Games
W-L
Playoff W-L
2008
1
0-1
0-1
2007
2
1-1
0-1
2006
0
0-0
4-0*
2005
3
1-2
0-1
2004
1
0-1
1-1
* Won Super Bowl XLI

Polian is right, in that he'd rather be cut on the dull side of a double-edged sword than to have one or two key starters get hurt against a Jets team that boasts the top defense in the NFL. And make no mistake, the decision to withhold starters wasn't a unilateral move by first-year coach Jim Caldwell, who lost his first game against the Jets.

As Manning said, this was "an organizational decision."

At the same time, not everybody could justify losing, regardless of the rationale.

"Our job is to win every game," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, one of the few players who seemingly provided his honest opinion. "That's what I come here to do. That's what I come here to play like and we didn't do so. So, whatever anybody says about goals, my goal is to come up and win."

It turns out that the Colts' decision to pull most of their starters has far more effect than on their fortunes. By surrendering the victory to the Jets -- a team that couldn't move the ball against the starters -- Indianapolis opened the door for New York to clinch a wild-card berth. The Jets have to win next week against visiting Cincinnati, but odds are pretty good that the Bengals, who clinched the AFC North, are going to pull some of their starters before the opening coin toss.

That will allow the Jets, should they win, to bounce a team like Denver or Pittsburgh or Houston from the playoffs. Granted, those teams didn't handle their own business and should they miss the playoffs, they have nobody but themselves to blame, but the Jets got a Christmas gift from the Colts.

"At this point, I'll take whatever I can get," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "I could care less how we get in. You just want to get to the tournament. We had some bad luck this year. We've lost some heartbreaking games. Like I said, I don't care how we get in. Once you're in the tournament, you never know what will happen."

Cliché, but true. In fact, the Jets could come back to Indianapolis and give it to the Colts in the postseason, fair and square. Then again, a full-strength Colts team could make the Jets realize their regular-season win was a matter of good fortune on Indianapolis' behalf.

Brooks: Colts made right call
Did the Colts do the right thing by pulling their stars in the third quarter of Week 16's loss? Bucky Brooks tackled that question and more during a live chat Sunday night. More ...

There really is no wrong or right to Indianapolis' strategy. And you can feel pretty sure that it won't wait until the third quarter to pull players in the regular-season finale against Buffalo. The Colts will still be the top seed with a 14-2 record.

"I want to win the Super Bowl," Wayne said. "Whatever we have to do to get there, I'll take it. We take care of business in the playoffs and go on to win the Super Bowl, I think a lot of this stuff will be forgotten. There is always a bigger picture, and hopefully we have the formula for it."

For the Colts, they better be right. If they don't get to the Super Bowl, this decision will be second guessed, as it should, even though there is no way to know whether a victory over the Jets would have mattered much if Indy can't find its way in the playoffs.

You can give as much merit to the Colts' strategy as you'd like, but there is this to note about the franchise's recent history: In the past six seasons of Indianapolis' enviable playoff run, the only time it wasn't in position to rest players came in 2006 -- the only time it claimed a Super Bowl championship.

It's not their fault that they're good.

They just better be right.

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