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Colts Content with #1 Seed: Pull Starters and Lose

I am guessing you did not get everything you asked for this Christmas. Well, that puts you in the company of almost every Indianapolis sports fan this Monday. It is not so much the fact that Jim Caldwell sat Indianapolis Colts starters in Sunday’s Week 16 match up with the New York Jets,–everyone knew it was coming–it is the manner in which he did it.

It is often said that timing is everything, and the adage usually holds true. Last night, Coach Caldwell’s timing stunk. That he and team president Bill Polian had decided to rest key position players for the Indianapolis Colts previous to the game last night is acceptable. Harder to swallow is the execution of this predetermined path at the expense of a perfect season. The Colts did not need to fervently pursue a 16-0 record over the final two weeks of the regular season, but last night it appeared the Colts were trying to get out of the way of perfection.

“Our goal wasn’t a perfect season” was Caldwell’s response after the game. No, a perfect season should not be your goal, but winning every game your team plays should be. If a perfect season is the by-product, then so be it. Why not allow Peyton Manning to at least finish out the third quarter?

When the Indianapolis Colts got the ball back, leading 15-10 with 5:36 left in the third quarter, playing Peyton would have been the right move. Give him and the rest of the Indy starters the chance for one more long drive that could have eaten up the rest of the third quarter, possibly the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, and scored to make it a two-possession deficit.

Instead, Colts fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis watched 24-year old rookie quarterback Curtis Painter get thrown to the wolves. Tasked with protecting a 5-point lead with more than 20 minutes to go, Painter looked as if he was the winner of a halftime contest gone awry. It cannot be confirmed, but there is speculation that instead of the normal play calls being received inside the QB’s helmet, Tom Moore kept repeating, “don’t forget to breathe.”

Besides a less than stellar performance in the final regular season home game, the fallout from yesterday’s loss is not major. However, there are sevral aspects to think about for posterity’s sake.

Now that the Indianapolis Colts have pulled the plug on perfection, they have to win the Super Bowl or their season will be viewed as a failure. Yesterday’s performance by the Indianapolis coaching staff and front office clearly stated that they feel they have the winning formula. This is not a bad thing. But, to purposely shut down the momentum gathered during a 23-game win streak is a calculated risk, and ultimately they had better be right.

Every Colts fan in their right mind would gladly accept a 15-1 or 14-2 regular season mark in return for a second championship in four years. The problem is, the front office of the Colts organization  have opened the door to the what ifs. How easy will it be to point to pulling the starters if the Colts come out flat during the playoffs?

You can’t play not to get hurt, you have to play to win. Injuries are a very real concern in the NFL and can happen at anytime. But with logic like the Colts are employing it gives off the scent of fear, which is never a good thing. You want your team looking invincible by their own merit, not needing the protection of their head coach. Champions go for the jugular to leave no doubt, not the crease between fingers to inflict a really bad paper cut.

Why not give Peyton Manning the chance to orchestrate the single greatest season a team has ever had? All the time analysts and announcers introduce Manning by saying, “he is possibly the greatest quarterback ever,” or “by the time he retires he will own all the major records.” There is no guarantee that the Colts win the game yesterday had Manning & Co. stayed on the field–or that they would stay perfect the rest of the way–but he has earned that chance. Don’t make this a great run, make this a legendary run. The season that every other team points to and says that’s who we want to be.

Taking a more specific angle on yesterday’s 29-15 loss, with the win the Jets now control their own playoff destiny. If they win again next week at home against Cincinnati, they will secure either the #5 or #6 seed in the AFC playoffs. With a win during the wild card weekend, the Jets could be well on their way to a return trip to the Circle City.

With Sunday’s win, the Jets have produced their own bulletin board material. They came to Indianapolis and won when no other team could. It makes much more sense to demoralize a possible playoff opponent in my eyes, especially when that team is being lead by a rookie quarterback of their own. How well do you think Mark Sanchez sleeps the night before a second round playoff game against a possibly undefeated Colts team that just beat him three weeks previous?

Once again, if the Colts make an impressive postseason push, all is forgotten and forgiven. The pressure of perfection is now gone and the Boys in Blue can concentrate solely on Weeks 19, 20 and 21. Enough with the virtual water cooler chitchat, let’s get on with it.

THINGS WE LOVED…

  • During the first half of yesterday’s game, how impressive was Reggie Wayne‘s performance against Darrelle Revis? Revis–whom many consider to be the best corner in the NFL and a front runner for Defensive Player of the Year–found himself watching, along with every sports fan in Indiana, as Wayne had several big plays just miss off of his fingertips. The near misses were due more to Peyton putting the ball in a place where only Reggie could get it, and less with the receiver’s inability to make the play. Odds are the legendary duo of Manning and Wayne won’t miss again if given a second chance come playoff time.
  • Austin Collie’s treatment of Jets cornerback and two-time Pro Bowl selection Lito Sheppard bordered on criminal yesterday. The rookie made plays all over the field and often made it seem as though he were the one with eight years of NFL experience, not Sheppard. With news that Anthony Gonzalez is on the shelf for the remainder of the year, Collie will be called upon to fill that hole in the postseason.
  • The two introductions between Mark Sanchez and the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium made possible by Dwight Freeney. Both sacks came on big plays and both appeared to have the capability of removing the Jets quarterback’s head from his body. With the two tallies from yesterday, Freeney is up to 13.5 sacks on the season. Sanchez became the 43rd different quarterback to fall by Freeney’s hands.
  • During the Colts first possession of the third quarter, running back Donald Brown made three huge contributions on consecutive plays. On the Jets 26-yard line Brown helped Manning sell a play action fake, he then recovered in time to get to the other side of the pocket and land a mean chip block. This allowed Peyton to find Dallas Clark for 19 yards and a first and a first and goal opportunity. On the next play from the Jets 7-yard line, Brown picked up six well earned yards on a second chance run after initial contact. On the very next play from the 1-yard line, Donald Brown scored on a third chance run to the outside after initial contact. With the playoffs almost here, the Indianapolis Colts will need to keep opponents honest with some sort of a run game; Brown makes that more of a reality.
  • Punter and kickoff man Pat McAfee has recently made it common practice to put a hurting on the ball. Leaving kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks is always a good thing. Which leads us to…

THINGS WE COULD LIVE WITHOUT…

  • Just as quickly as Chad Simpson had Hoosiers believing the Indianapolis Colts were decent to moderately OK on special teams, Brad Smith opened up the second half by taking a Pat McAfee kickoff out of the end zone and down the sideline for 106-yard return for a touchdown. It doesn’t matter how far into the end zone you kick it if the returning team thinks they have a chance for a big play.
  • Jim Caldwell’s decision to pull most of the Colts starters with 20 minutes remaining in the game. It is hard to argue with a man that started his NFL head coaching tenure 14-0, but he is now 14-1 so let the nitpicking begin. Honestly, his inexperience leaves you guessing whether or not yesterday’s decision was just a rookie mistake, or a calculated move well beyond his years. No matter how the Indy’s season ends, we won’t ever know the answer to this question. There are just too many intangibles involved for a clear-cut answer.
  • The start of Curtis Painter’s career. It really was comical, and would have been much more enjoyable if his shortcomings were not directly associated with the end of the longest regular season win streak in NFL history. Nothing could have been expected from the one time Purdue Boilermaker. He was handed a 5-point lead against the top rated defense in the entire league who just so happen to be fighting for their playoff lives. I’m guessing that your first day at work was a little less stressful than his. If not, you need to find a new job.
  • Way to instill confidence in an old kicker whose first play back from more than 2 months off due to surgery is a blocked extra point. In reality, this should prove no more than a minor side note to an already ugly game. Adam Vinatieri has four diamond-encrusted reasons not worry about small stuff like this.
  • After Peyton and every other player whose jersey is sold in the proshop started riding pine, there was nothing left to watch. So, we won’t bother to rehash it here.

THE RECORDS…

At least yesterday’s loss gives some finality to these things.

  • The Colts have set the regular season consecutive wins mark at 23 games. Hopefully it is just one of the results from a much more successful season.
  • Jim Caldwell has set the bar incredibly high for all future rookie head coaches by starting his career with 14 straight wins.
  • Dallas Clark became the only the third tight end in the history of the NFL to amass 90+ catches, 1,000-yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns in a single season. He joins the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Todd Christensen.
  • Peyton Manning became only the fourth player ever in NFL history to enter into the 50,000-yard club. He joins Dan Marino, John Elway, and Brett Farve in the 50k barbershop quartet of passing. Manning is the youngest to get to such a number by 2 years. He is still 33-years old. Both Marino and Elway were 35 when they hit the milestone. Peyton also did it in a fewer number of games than all others, needing just 191 starts to accomplish this feat.

WHATS NEXT…

My thought is more of the same until playoff time. The Colts have a less than meaningless game next Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Buffalo Bills. The good news for Curtis Painter is this: while the temperature sure will drop, so will the tenacity with which he will be pursued. Buffalo has nothing left to play for and it could be questioned if they ever really did. This will be a sort of homecoming for Colts team president Bill Polian who worked for the Bills during the 90’s and was the mastermind behind their four consecutive Super Bowl contending teams. We will be back on Friday to break down whatever the Colts give us, so come on back now ya hear.