It was week 15. The New Orleans Saints were down 24-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, and their perfect season was on the line. With a playoff spot locked up, you might have expected to see Drew Brees standing on the sideline with his helmet off. You would be wrong. Brees was rallying his troops for an improbable comeback, mounting two successful TD drives before being sacked and stopped on the third drive that would have tied the game. The Cowboys had taken the Saint’s perfect season by force, but not without a fight.
Fast forward one week. It is the 3rd quarter, and the Indianapolis Colts are leading the NY Jets by 5. The Jets anemic offense, under the inexperienced and error-prone Mark Sanchez, has only scored 3 points in the whole game thus far. The Colts are defending a perfect 14-0 record, one that has been matched only two other times in NFL history. Like the Saints a week before, the Colts might have attempted to win the game with aggressive play by the starting offense. Many believe they should have, myself among them. Here is a general question: who won the Super Bowl in 1971? What about 1973, 1974, or 1975? I certainly don't know, and I'd wager most people don't. That is the point - everyone remembers who won in 1972. The Colts had the opportunity to do something nobody had ever done, to reach football perfection and go 19-0. Certainly something worth fighting for.
Peyton Manning hadn't been sacked all night, and had been barely touched. In 191 consecutive games, he hasn't been injured. Still, there is some risk, so I don't completely blame the Colts staff for being worried about injury. Instead of opting for aggressively pursuing a win, like Brees and the Saints the week before, the Colts could have put in subs and went with a conservative offensive strategy. They could have went with plays that put Peyton at no risk: running plays, short screens, the occasional one-step drop passes. Run the clock down, take no risk, and punt the ball if it comes to it. Sit on the 5 point lead, and force Mark Sanchez to beat the Colts defense at home.
In a staggering display of lack of heart, inept play calling, or maybe both, the Colts went with the worst of both worlds. They put in the backups, but then went with aggressive play calling. Some may dispute that, but it would be wrong to do so. The Colts were inside of their own twenty, against one of the best defenses in the league. Dropping back a completely inexperienced QB for long passes is the very definition of aggressive play calling, and we all know the result. The Colts threw away an incredibly rare opportunity, in a pseudo trade for a Super Bowl. I'd never actually seen a professional athletic team shy away from greatness until that night. Furthermore, those who made this false choice between perfect season and Super Bowl are only kidding themselves. The Colts' decision Sunday evening makes them less likely to win a championship, not more.
The Colts started 13-0 in 2005. They lost game 14 to the Chargers, took it easy for the rest of the season, had a first-round playoff bye, but still lost immediately to the Steelers. In 2007, the Colts again rested the last game of the season, losing to the Titans. After the bye week, the Colts were knocked out of the playoffs by the Chargers. This isn't to argue that the Colts should never bench their starters, or shouldn't take advantage of a bye week. Rather, it shows that taking it easy at the end of the season is simply not a guarantor of playoff success here in Indianapolis. Haven't we learned this lesson by now?!
Having watched the Colts over the last few years, there is only one thing in my mind that is an indicator of future performance - momentum. The Colts are a rhythm team, so when the offense is in sync they are hard to stop. A Colts offense in rhythm is usually a Colts team that is ahead in the game, which means the defense is resting more, and the opposing offense is passing when they are on the field. I for one think the Colts defense is stronger against the pass than the run, and I cite Freeney and Mathis as evidence for my claim.
Whoever it is that the Colts end up playing first, they’re going to have revenge on their mind: Patriots, Ravens, Texans, Bengals, or Broncos. When they face this vengeful opponent, it might have been a full month since the Colts will have won a game; I hope they do not forget what victory tastes like. Hopefully the Colts manage a victory. And maybe they'll stop the Chargers in the AFC championship, a team that will by that point be on a 12-game winning streak, will have tons of momentum, and has a long storied history of kicking the crap out of the Colts. Perhaps the Colts will even win a Super Bowl. Then they can look back at their flawed record and wonder what if, and leave the history-making to some other team with more heart.