Colts may ponder 16-0, but playoff preparation is still top priority

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts understand that, in the rarified air of the unbeaten, you don't always breathe so much as you gasp.

They did a lot of that through an NFL-record five fourth-quarter rallies to victory. And even after a relatively easy, 27-17 triumph over the Tennessee Titans to go to 12-0 and tie the New England Patriots' NFL-record with their 21st straight regular-season win, the Colts appreciate the difficulty of their accomplishment.

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Not long after the Colts left the field, they heard that the New Orleans Saints needed overtime to beat the Washington Redskins to also stay perfect. Now, for both teams, the chance to match another Patriot record -- a 16-0 regular season -- is only four games away.

So near, yet so far.

The Colts realize their chances of finishing unbeaten are probably slimmer than those of the Saints. That's because they've already won the AFC South and are in a position to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs with multiple games left on their schedule. When everything is wrapped up, being perfect will take a back seat to staying healthy, and backups will dominate the starting lineups for the remaining games.

In the Colts' locker room, you hear player after player talk about the "real goal" being a Super Bowl championship. Still, there is no denying the desire to be able to do that while achieving perfection.

"That's one thing that you always dream of that you never talk about," safety Melvin Bullitt said. "You know, in the back of everyone's mind, that's what we would love. But it's not about that."

No, it isn't. It's about doing everything it takes to enhance the chances to win a second Super Bowl in four seasons. In all likelihood, staying perfect won't help. If anything, it could hurt because of the increased possibility of injury by playing starters in games that won't matter.

But how great would it be to experience an unbeaten season all the way through the Super Bowl? How incredible would it be to surpass the Patriots and join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only team to win the Super Bowl without suffering a loss?

To get a sense of the magnitude of that feat, all you have to do is ask the members of the Colts when the last time was that they were part of an unbeaten squad.

"Elementary school (in Garland, Texas)," Bullitt said. "It was YMCA football. We were the Jets. We were undefeated and won a championship. I was a quarterback and a linebacker."

Even now, he speaks of that season with tremendous pride.

It's the same way offensive tackle Ryan Diem talks about the 8-0 team on which he played for when he was in eighth grade in Schaumburg, Ill.

"It was definitely fun," Diem said. "We ran the table, we won the championship for the heavyweight division. I was an offensive tackle then, too."

It gets more complicated in the NFL. The stakes are so much higher, the consequences so much greater, that it's not always as simple as putting the best players on the field every week, regardless of the situation. You worry about losing your franchise quarterback or your star receiver or your big-play tight end for any or all of the postseason.

Linebacker Gary Brackett says that he and his fellow starters are geared toward preparing for each of the remaining weeks of the regular season as if they will play. If they're told differently, they'll go along with the program.

No questions asked.

Yet, there are occasions when the Colts can allow themselves to ponder how wonderful it would be to have it all -- a Lombardi Trophy and a perfect record. For instance, Bullitt, who describes himself as a top-flight video game player, has no inhibitions when it comes to talking about his approach to Madden.

"I try to go for that 19-0 and win the Super Bowl," he said. "Or (in the college version), 13-0 and win the national championship. No blemishes. Nothing."

Reality is different.

Reality is focusing on what can be controlled, such as Sunday's game against the Titans and the Week 14 clash with Denver Broncos. Reality is trying to find ways to improve each game.

After those five successive fourth-quarter rallies, the Colts were determined to start strong against Tennessee. And they did.

"No one can compete with us if we start like we're supposed to," Bullitt said.

But what happens if the backups are on the field?

That's a different story. That's a story that no one is ready to address in any detail in the Colts' locker room.

"I know our starting group is going to give it a good run every week," Diem said. "As far as other players and circumstances, I don't make predictions like that."

The rest of us can. Depending on the outcome against the Broncos, to put all or any of the final three games in the shaky hands of reserves figures to make a 13-3 or 12-4 finish a virtual certainty. But as tight end Dallas Clark said, he is content to "leave it to the coaches to make that decision."

"If we win them all, awesome, we're a part of history," Diem said. "But the No. 1 priority around here is to make that run in the playoffs."

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