Pressure mounts now that Colts are closer than ever to perfection

INDIANAPOLIS -- Forgive the Indianapolis Colts if they feel like they've lived through this movie before.

Yes, they were undefeated in December 2005, and, yes, they have clinched division titles and home-field advantage with several weeks left in the regular season.

Now, the Colts are entering a new realm. For the first time in franchise history, Indy is 14-0, within reach of a perfect season and about to see the old debate over playing starters become increasingly intense.

Just don't expect an answer until next week.

"I'm fine with playing our guys and going after it full steam," Colts owner Jim Irsay said on Friday. "I'm also fine with resting players and making sure we're healthy for the playoffs. Fourteen-and-oh is very special and it adds another legacy chip to the franchise. But 16-0 isn't the key, 19-0 is."

To the Colts, it's yet another historic quest in a season that has been full of them.

Indy has already extended its league-record regular-season winning streak to 23 games. It has won 11 straight road games and 13 consecutive home games, both franchise records. It has extended its own NFL record of consecutive 12-win seasons to seven, and now has 115 wins in the decade, the most by any team in any decade. Thursday's win at Jacksonville also marked the seventh time Indy came back in the fourth quarter to win this season, another league record.

The individual marks are nearly as impressive.

Jim Caldwell is the first rookie coach to open his career with 14 straight wins. Three-time MVP Peyton Manning has nine 300-yard passing games, one short of the record set by Rich Gannon in 2002 and matched by Drew Brees last season. Tight end Dallas Clark is on the verge of matching his own single-season franchise record for TD receptions by a tight end after accounting for five touchdowns in five days.

So would an undefeated regular season add that much more luster to the Colts' accomplishments?

"It's a special team, and it is truly remarkable how we find different ways to write the script," Irsay said. "When you realize only two other teams (1972 Miami Dolphins and 2007 New England Patriots) in the 90-year history of the league have been 14-0, you realize how special this is."

But a perfect season would mean nothing to Irsay unless it included hoisting another Lombardi Trophy.

And Indy understands either decision comes with risks. Three times since 1999, the Colts have had first-round byes. Three times, they've lost their first playoff game.

Team president Bill Polian still recoils at the thought of playing his starters in the 1999 season-finale at Buffalo. The plan was to get Colts players out when their seed was locked up. One problem.

"(Linebacker) Cornelius Bennett went down with a knee injury on a chop block," Polian told radio listeners. "We came in against Tennessee here, lost the ballgame and they went on to play in the Super Bowl. That's a fact, and I can recite all of the facts surrounding that situation because I have never forgotten it. That is the price you can pay in meaningless games."

On Thursday, it could have happened again, although the game hardly was meaningless for Jacksonville.

Second-year receiver Pierre Garcon sat out the second half after bruising his hand. Caldwell said the team hasn't yet determined the severity of the injury, but it is a warning of what can happen.

In 2005 and 2007, the Colts took the other tack, playing starters sparingly or not at all in the final weeks. The results: home losses to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in 2005 and to San Diego in 2007.

So what do the Colts do now? Some players, including three-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne and linebacker Gary Brackett, want to continue playing. Others are content to let Caldwell make the call.

"We've followed his orders all year, and I think that's a good plan," Manning said Thursday night. "So we'll continue to do that. Those are decisions I don't have to make. Whatever he says, I think will be the right one."

There is one other factor at stake.

A win next week over the Jets would give the Colts only their second 8-0 home mark since the team moved to Indy in 1984. The other: 2006 when the Colts won the Super Bowl.

"We know what the most important thing is," Caldwell said. "We want to be in the best possible condition we can be in. We want to do well in the playoffs. That's what we think about and we'll adjust and move along game by game like we've done all year."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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