I don’t see the Colts going undefeated through the regular season. I am certain they aren’t going to be heartbroken if or when it doesn’t happen.
They could lose Sunday to Tennessee, a hot and dangerous team that’s played as well or better than the Colts in recent weeks. The AFC South rivals have split the season series the past three years -- though a couple of games at the end of those seasons had no meaning for one or both teams. The Titans are seeking to avenge a 31-9 loss on "Sunday Night Football" Oct. 11 and have far more to lose as they try to claw their way into the wild-card picture.
But even if the Colts beat the Titans, they’ll drop at least a game down the stretch when they take their foot off the gas. Coach Jim Caldwell and president Bill Polian have each made it clear that an undefeated season isn’t the team’s goal. Polian says momentum heading into the playoffs is an overrated concept.
Like the Titans, the Broncos will have more on the line than the Colts when they visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 13.
A team that’s been beat up a lot this year will rest a lot of injured or tired players in games that don’t mean anything at the end of the season. Pull Dwight Freeney, Clint Session and Antoine Bethea off the defense and even the Jets and Bills will find yards. And is Jim Sorgi throwing to Hank Baskett going to put fear into New York or Buffalo?
Indianapolis wouldn’t mind if 16-0 happened, obviously, but it’s not a primary goal. And dropping a couple of games late after a long undefeated stretch is hardly new territory for the franchise -- it was 7-0 in 2007, 9-0 in 2006 and 13-0 in 2005.
Getting in position to win in the playoffs trumps everything. It hasn’t been something this team’s done well outside of its 2006 championship season. But it’s hardly thinking of an undefeated regular season as any sort of prerequisite.
Here’s how ESPN.com national writers John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli see it.
Clayton: The reason the Colts will not go 16-0 is because they don’t need to go 16-0. At different times during Manning’s incredible career, the Colts have flirted with the perfect regular season. Once they clinched home field, they started to think ahead to the playoffs, which left them vulnerable to a loss. That will be the case again this year.
Their remaining five games are winnable. They play teams with a combined record of 27-28, the 14th-easiest closing schedule in the league. Indianapolis’ only two remaining opponents with winning records are the Broncos (Dec. 13) and Jaguars (Dec. 17). They can win those games. But it’s also possible for the Colts to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs once they get to 13 wins. Once that happens, the Colts will focus on the playoffs.
Manning, Polian and everyone who has been around the organization realize the idea is to win two games in the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl. That’s why they will start figuring out how to rest starters, including Manning, in the final three weeks. If that happens, they could lose to the Jets on Dec. 27 or the Bills on Jan. 3.
Pasquarelli: In winning their past five games by a total of 18 points, all with fourth-quarter comebacks, the Colts have demonstrated a remarkable resourcefulness. But in doing so, they have also rung up not only the division title, but also a three-game lead over all other AFC franchises, and are poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It would take a monumental collapse in December for the Colts to have to leave Lucas Oil Stadium for a postseason game, and the likelihood of that is extremely remote. On the other hand, once they clinch that right, there is no other carrot to dangle in front of the noses of the prideful Colts, save for a perfect season. And remaining unbeaten going into the playoffs isn’t a big priority for a Colts team that has now been to the postseason eight straight times, but owns just one Super Bowl ring.
The priority for Indianapolis, as always, remains winning a championship, not every regular-season outing. Polian earlier this week debunked the importance of momentum entering the playoffs. That admission could be a tacit tip-off to the Colts’ strategy of resting some starters in December, and remaining as healthy as possible for the postseason. The Colts, who play every game with great intensity, will succumb to a degree of human nature once they clinch home-field advantage, and ratchet down just a hair, enough to drop a close game to someone.