Colts: Caldwell will choose wisely between rest, pursuit of perfection

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning and his teammates won't even lobby Colts coach Jim Caldwell to play in the final two regular-season games.

If Caldwell tells them to go for the perfect season, they will bring the same approach that helped them become the NFL's third 14-0 team. If they're told to sit out or play sparingly, even if it means risking an undefeated record, they won't question it.

That's how it works in the Colts' locker room, where players abide by a simple rule: Follow the leader.

"It's what we believe in," defensive captain Gary Brackett said. "To be successful in this league, you have to have one voice, so we believe in what coach Caldwell says. I think that's why we are successful."

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Incredibly successful.

The Colts enter Sunday's game against the New York Jets with an NFL-record 23-game regular-season winning streak, as the only team to post seven consecutive 12-win seasons and with more wins in a decade (115) than any team in league history. The Colts have missed the playoffs only one time this decade and have six division titles since 2003.

They've done it with three head coaches since 2000 and just three veterans -- Manning, Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday and long snapper Justin Snow -- around for all 115 wins. And they've excelled this season with the league's second-youngest opening-day roster. Both the Colts and Miami Dolphins had an average age of 25.89 years.

But the Colts aren't on top of the NFL world because of sheer talent. They're here because of a unified attitude.

They have cobbled together a group of players who insist what's best for the team is more important than what's best for themselves. It's a throwback to a seemingly bygone era when players didn't dare publicly question the team's braintrust or try to stand out so they could win endorsement deals.

Even now, in the midst of the great debate, with prestige and potentially money on the line, the Colts are content to keep it boring in the locker room. They're willing to let others discuss whether the starters should sit or play over the next two weeks while Caldwell makes up his mind.

"It's not really set up that way, to lobby," Manning said after the Colts rallied to win at Jacksonville last week. "I don't think there's one guy in that locker room that's going to tell you, 'No, I don't want to play.' But we've followed his (Caldwell's) orders all year, and I think that's a good plan. Those are decisions I don't have to make, and whatever decision he makes, I think will be the right one."

Sure, former NFL sack champion Dwight Freeney, Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark have offered their opinions. Each says he has prepared his body for a 16-game grind, and each would like to play the games because of his competitive nature.

Yet even if sitting out means losing incentive bonuses, failing to meet personal goals or perhaps losing a postseason award or two, Colts players are OK with it.

"Team comes first around here, even if you have something like that (an incentive clause)," Freeney said. "But the team tries to take care of those things if they can."

Here, the Colts understand there are greater goals at stake. They insist the only significance of a 16-0 record is if they can finish 19-0, and they would trade a loss or two now for a perfect record in the playoffs.

So over the next couple of weeks, nothing will change. The Colts will listen to Caldwell, follow his instructions and not make waves.

Boring, maybe. But it works.

"The decision makers here have made great decisions, and you see it in how they put this team together," Freeney said. "It shows with how many games we've won. I think it starts from the top down, whether it's (owner) Jim Irsay, Bill Polian, coach (Tony) Dungy or coach Caldwell, and we all believe they will make the best decisions."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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