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Now's Not the Time for Colts to Go Easy

Dec 13, 2009 – 9:00 PM
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch %BloggerTitle%

Dwight FreeneyINDIANAPOLIS -- They did it! Perfection. The Colts beat the Broncos 28-16 Sunday to finish the regular season a perfect 13-0. And now, if they roll through the postseason, we can finally get those perfect 1972 Dolphins to shut up. And ...

What's that? Three more regular-season games? No, that can't be. The Colts are shutting down. Owner Jim Irsay himself told me that the most important thing is to be healthy for that first playoff game.

They tried shutting down in late 2005 and 2007 and then lost their first playoff game. In 2006, they were forced to fight to the end, and then won the Super Bowl. What about that?

"What you have to be careful in doing is sometimes you try to use logic and perception," Irsay said, "and you have to be careful that you come up with misperceptions."

Huh? He also said this: "Everything you do, you have to be single-minded and tough-minded in protecting the circle."

I'm pretty good at recognizing gibberish. But whatever -- Irsay and Colts president Bill Polian are making health the No. 1 priority now, and it will be for the next 34 days until their first playoff game. That means benching top players.

But over such a long time, that won't lead to rest so much as rust. The Colts aren't going for it. New Orleans, the other undefeated team, is going to have to be the one to shut up the old Dolphins. The Colts have decided to lay up on the rest of the season, to punt on fourth-and-inches, to take a knee.

"I think every competitive player wants to be out there, playing."
-- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
This is a big mistake, and not just because they're likely to blow a chance to be the first team to go 16-0 and then win the Super Bowl. You don't tell a football team to stop fighting. Maybe you do it for a week, to heal minor injuries and freshen legs.

But not for 34 days.

No way. If anything, that will increase a player's chance of getting hurt, not to mention to lose his edge. No one will tell a player not to try, but when you sit the best players, that message is sent anyway.

Meanwhile, the Colts are a precision team that keeps winning tight games because it is so precise. They aren't getting nervous. They aren't getting cocky, or needing a smackdown.

They are in perfect position to be perfect.

On Sunday, the Colts clinched homefield advantage through the AFC Championship Game. They broke records, too, becoming the first team to win 22 straight regular-season games, and the first to win 114 games in the same decade. And those things matter about as much as Denver receiver Brandon Marshall, in a loss, making 21 catches Sunday to break the NFL single-game record.

This is an uncomfortable spot for Colts players, celebrating their greatness as they're told by a couple of older guys in suits to stop fighting, to forget about the history they are on the verge of making. Apparently, coach Jim Caldwell is going along with it, though it's unclear whether he even had a vote in it.

"I'll get to that business at some point," he said.

How awkward. Peyton Manning showed that discomfort, too.

He said that there is no right answer here. And it's true that if Manning gets hurt in a meaningless game, that will not go over well. So Manning said that whatever plan Caldwell produces will be the right one. Then, he said he doesn't like starting games, playing a couple of series and then leaving. He also made a public plea to play in Thursday night's game at Jacksonville.

"I think every competitive player wants to be out there, playing," he said. "I don't know anything else but the path to go to prepare to play to win."

What happened to Caldwell's gameplan being right, no matter what? It's just so much easier in New Orleans, where quarterback Drew Brees has made it clear that he wants the 16-0. That team has something to rally around.

Irsay said that in his years watching football, he has learned that freshness is everything. Polian said momentum is overrated. But guys, what about 2005 and 2007?

Both suggested that the problem those years wasn't about lost momentum, but about wear and tear. To Irsay, that's the misperception part, the wrong conclusion.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney would know. Did the team lose its mojo in 2005 and 2007 because it stopped fighting?

"I have no idea," he said. "I have to look back at it. I haven't thought about it."


Polian said this: "I don't know what mojo is."

Look, Manning will start Thursday because he won't want to break his string of games started. But the Colts won't be the Colts for long.

Freeney acknowledged that many of them will want to play. You don't keep your edge for 34 days by practicing only, by having a month-long exhibition season leading into the playoffs.

Of course, that might just be my misperception from outside the circle.

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