Colts' benching smart, even if it smarts

INDIANAPOLIS-- All those people who want to criticize Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell need to find some perspective.

He did the right thing by pulling in his starters in the second half of his team's 29-15 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday. The decision clearly cost the Colts a chance at going undefeated this year. But what it also did was give them a better shot at pursuing the only goal that really matters: winning a championship.

That's what all those fans in Lucas Oil Stadium who started booing in the third and fourth quarters should understand. As cool as it would've been for the Colts -- now 14-1 -- to join the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins as the only teams to finish a regular season with no losses, history just doesn't mean as much as it once did.

The Patriots' run in 2007 is proof of that. Even though New England hoists a banner inside Gillette Stadium celebrating its 16-0 regular-season mark, the most powerful memory of that season remains the upset loss they sustained to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

Besides, Caldwell had an idea of how he wanted to prepare his team for a postseason run. He deserves credit for not letting the possibility of a perfect season sway his decision-making process.

As Caldwell said in his postgame news conference, "The main focus for us is making sure we're ready to go [for the playoffs]. The most important season is the one that is coming up."

What Caldwell didn't have to say is that the Colts already have reached all their goals for the regular season. They've won the AFC South once again. They've clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs once again.

Most importantly, the Colts already have endured big hits to their starting units, losing receiver Anthony Gonzalez and defensive backs Marlin Jackson and Bob Sanders -- among others -- to season-ending injuries. Those setbacks also had to factor heavily in Caldwell's thinking about resting players against the Jets.

For those who haven't noticed, these aren't the same Colts of years past. They're relying on much younger players in key roles while getting the most out of proven veterans who know how to win. When you have that kind of variety on your roster, it's not as easy to rebound from a critical injury to a star player.

In fact, Caldwell's decision-making made even more sense after watching the way backup quarterback Curtis Painter ran the Colts' offense after replacing Manning early in the third quarter.

With Manning on the sidelines -- and fans booing every time the Colts' offensive reserves took the field -- Indianapolis literally fell apart in the second half.

Painter threw for 44 yards while completing four of his 11 passes. The Colts gained only 104 yards in the second half … and 81 of those came on a scoring drive Manning led before heading to the sidelines. There was also a Painter fumble (while being sacked by Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace) that led to a 1-yard touchdown return by Jets defensive tackle Marques Douglas in the third quarter.

Now it is fair to say that Manning could have run a scaled-down offense and still led the Colts to victory against a Jets team that didn't score an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter. But that also would be missing the point.

If Manning or another offensive star -- such as tight end Dallas Clark or wide receiver Reggie Wayne -- had been injured in the second half, those same angry fans would've been apoplectic. The need to keep those players available for the playoffs far outweighed the brief joy that would've come from a Week 16 victory.

The Colts players understood that as well, even though some acknowledged that sitting is never an easy decision for any player.

"Until any player is a head coach, you follow orders and you do it with all your heart," Manning said.

"We support the decisions that are made. Our orders were to win the game. Our orders weren't to give up a fumble for a touchdown or a kick return for a touchdown [by the Jets' Brad Smith]."

Manning actually said Caldwell had told him before the game "to be flexible" about the possibility of sitting at some point in the second half.

Cornerback Kelvin Hayden, on the other hand, said some players were surprised by Caldwell's decision.

"We didn't have a clue he was going to do that," Hayden said.

But regardless of how informed the players were, they eventually accepted that Caldwell has a plan for them that involves more than simply grabbing a piece of history.

Hayden said one positive that comes from a defeat like this is that backup players received a shot at extensive experience. For a team that has been involved in so many close games, that playing time can be a valuable benefit for players who've spent most of the year watching the action.

The Colts also had a chance to remember what it feels like to lose. After winning a league-record 23 straight games, it's good for them to recall how lousy it can feel to watch somebody else walk away victorious.

Keep in mind that the Colts have won as much as any team in the league this decade. Along with that winning streak, they also hold the record for most consecutive seasons with at least 12 victories (seven) and their 115 wins this decade are more than any team has ever achieved in a 10-year period.

So they have won more than enough to know what matters most. And that's why it's so important to understand what Caldwell was thinking on Sunday afternoon.

What he was telling his team was that playing well in January and February is all that matters at this point.

Caldwell also might know most people probably couldn't even recall the regular-season records of the last 10 Super Bowl champions. That's because the only thing that matters is which teams end up holding the Lombardi Trophy at season's end.

And if that team ends up being the Indianapolis Colts this season, you can bet that nobody will be blasting Jim Caldwell for what he did on Dec. 27.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.