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Fortune favors the bold: Saints and Colts should strive for 16-0

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; D01

Of course they should go for the perfect season, both of them, the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. They ought to dismiss the very thought of safely coasting across the finish line, of resting starters for the playoffs and fretting over injuries that might occur or might not.

Having reached 13-0, they should stop treating perfection like a burden and approach the remaining three games of this regular season as if this is their chance of a lifetime, which it obviously is.

The Saints have pretty much had this right since Week 6, when Reggie Bush said going undefeated was entirely possible. The Colts, on the other hand, seemed to be afraid of committing; it came as something of a surprise Monday when Colts Coach Jim Caldwell said Indy will approach Thursday's night game in Jacksonville "just as we have done the previous 13."

Only three years ago the notion of a team going 16-0 was unthinkable. Then the New England Patriots did it, and won a pair of playoff games to go 18-0 before failing to finish the Perfect Season by losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. So here we are two seasons later with two teams having reasonable chances at going 16-0. The Saints will be heavily favored in all three of their games, at home against Dallas and Tampa Bay and at Carolina in the season finale. The Colts, who have a difficult opponent this week in division rival Jacksonville, would be heavily favored in their final two games, at home against the Jets and at Buffalo.

Theirs is the joint story of this NFL season. If either gets through unscathed, that team becomes the greatest team, by record, in NFL history.

If the two were to meet in the Super Bowl in Miami in February, the winner would become not only the greatest team in pro football history, but one of the great teams in the history of American sports. The case could be made it belongs up there with, perhaps ahead of, Ruth's 1927 Yankees, Wilt's 1972 Lakers and Jordan's 1996 Bulls.

The idea of playing for a perfect team led Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who played for the three-time champion Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s, to say on the NFL Network on Sunday morning, "I would turn in all three Super Bowl rings and my Hall of Fame bust for one undefeated season." It's good somebody with credentials put football perfection in proper perspective.

One can hope Irvin's public statement and the boldness of the Saints' approach led the Colts to seemingly change their plans of resting starters beginning Thursday night. It's a good thing. In 2005, the Colts were 13-0 but shut it down, lost two of the final three games in the regular season, and dropped a first-round playoff game, at home, to the wild-card Steelers. In 2007, the Colts clinched home-field advantage two days before Christmas, did not play with any great purpose for three weeks, and lost in the first round, at home, to the Chargers. (If the Colts choose to limit playing the time of their starters, they'd get a college-like layoff of around 30 days because the top two seeds in each conference wouldn't play until Jan. 16 or 17.)

Colts GM Bill Polian pointed out several times in recent days that in those final weeks of the 2005 season Coach Tony Dungy's son committed suicide, and that in 2007 the team had to play without two of its three best defensive players, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. And Polian, who oversaw the Bills' Super Bowl teams, is Midas in my book when it comes to assessing how teams ought to approach important situations.

Thing is, the Colts have already won a Super Bowl (2006 season) in the Peyton Manning era. And the NFL isn't the NBA or NHL, where worthiness is measured in multiple championships. One is significant. That particular pressure is done and gone. You know how the Colts can pull even with the Belichick/Brady Patriots who have three Super Bowl victories? Do the one thing the Pats failed to do: complete the Perfect Season.

That's how two would be greater than three. Dare to be great, at the very least try, and one-up the 16-0 Patriots and 17-0 Dolphins (who played a 14-game regular season in 1972).

This is the perfect time to put your foot on the pedal if you're Indy because the AFC isn't anywhere near as tough at the top or as deep as it has been. The defending champion Steelers probably won't even make the playoffs.

The Patriots are stumbling. The Chargers are the only team in the conference that is Indy's equal. And a game between those two would be played in Indianapolis.

The Saints have a much more difficult path in the NFC, what with the Eagles and Packers surging and the defending conference champ Cardinals at least in the playoff field. Yet it's the Saints who are eager to take a swing at it.

Darren Sharper, the Saints' ball-hawking safety who already wears a Super Bowl ring from his time in Green Bay, came right out and said, "We want to play for history."

Drew Brees, who figures to supplant Archie Manning as the most popular player in Saints history, said the prospect of going undefeated "means a lot to us. It doesn't happen all that often."

And a teammate, Bobby McCray, said: "We don't want to stop. We have to finish it off. Nobody has gone undefeated and won the Super Bowl [in a 16-game season]. Why wouldn't we try and finish?"

The Saints, who have never even reached a Super Bowl in the franchise's history, don't seem burdened by the pressure or fearful of injuries. Perhaps that's because they continue to be emboldened by a community that has had pretty much only the Saints to emotionally invest in since Hurricane Katrina. The home games in New Orleans these last four seasons have been more civic crusade than sport. Perhaps that's why the notion of holding back or being afraid to fail seem utterly foreign to the Saints' players, such as Brees and Bush, who have helped rebuild neighborhoods with their own hands, brick by brick. Going for it all, given what the Crescent City has endured, seems only appropriate. Of all the places that could do justice to claiming the only 19-0 team in NFL history, none would know how to celebrate it better than New Orleans.

There's also the reality of the Vikings trailing New Orleans by only two games with three to play. The Saints haven't clinched home field throughout the conference playoffs just yet. And to do so this week they'd have to beat the Cowboys, who are dreadful in December but will be playing for their playoff lives Saturday night in New Orleans. The Saints have to play full out, at least this week, though the notion of going into rope-a-dope seems unacceptable to the men in the room.

The Colts, on the other hand, seem to simply not believe in momentum or the lack of it. But some of us find it impossible to see how Manning would be well-served by playing a preseason-style schedule in the 15th and 16th games of the season, then going through a first-round bye week in January before revving it up again from a standstill for their playoff opener more than a month from now.

If we're lucky, at least one of these two teams will find the allure of doing something never done before greater than the fear of failing. and if both manage to go through the next three weeks without losing, then through two rounds of playoffs to the Super Bowl, it'll create a championship game of such unimaginable perfection we won't know what to make of it.

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