Colts decision to rest Peyton Manning, other starters will be scrutinized in NFL playoff game against the Ravens

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

Indianapolis Colts Coach Jim Caldwell sparked a national sports debate when he rested quarterback Peyton Manning and other key players in the next-to-last game of the regular season, trying to preserve them for a run at a Super Bowl title instead of continuing to pursue an unbeaten season.

The uproar that followed left even team president Bill Polian saying he was surprised at how negatively the club's fans reacted. Many observers contended that the chance to chase history simply doesn't come around that often, and the Colts were wrong to pass up their opportunity. The situation prompted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to say that the league had to do something to give playoff-bound teams an incentive to use their top players to preserve the integrity of games late in the regular season.

But the more basic question of whether the Colts properly went about attempting to win a Super Bowl also remains. The answer will come with how they fare in the postseason, which begins for them when they host the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC semifinal Saturday night. How the Colts play Saturday -- especially early in the game, when Manning and others might have a bit of rust to knock off their play -- will be scrutinized.

"It's gonna be a minor blip, an afterthought, if Indianapolis beats Baltimore," said former San Francisco 49ers guard and center Randy Cross, now an NFL analyst for CBS. "If that happens, it's nothing. It'll be quickly forgotten. But if not, it's what everyone will be talking about. It's all you'll hear about the next time there's a team that's undefeated late in the season."

The Colts lost a lead after Caldwell yanked his front-line players and were defeated by the New York Jets. They also lost at Buffalo in their regular season finale and, after earning a first-round bye in the playoffs, will enter Saturday's game having gone nearly a month since their last victory. They won at Jacksonville on Dec. 17 to improve to 14-0.

Caldwell said this week that his team's practices were "spirited" and "fast" and he thinks his club is ready to play. "We feel really good about where we are," Caldwell said during a news conference.

Polian endorsed the approach taken by Caldwell, and Colts owner Jim Irsay said he had approved of the decision beforehand. Still, it's not an approach that worked for the Colts in the past when Tony Dungy was their coach and Caldwell was one of his assistants. The Colts set a league record for regular season wins by a team in a decade and have had a record seven straight seasons with 12 or more victories, but have won the Super Bowl only once during their run of success.

That didn't come when they were a favorite. It came during a 2006 season in which the Colts were forced to a play a first-round round playoff game at home, in which they beat the Kansas City Chiefs, and had to go on the road in the conference semifinals, winning at Baltimore.

That has fueled the debate, with some maintaining that the best approach is for a team to leave its starters on the field late in the season to build momentum for the playoffs. That's what New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin did for the finale in 2007 when his team played the New England Patriots, who were trying to complete a 16-0 regular season. The Giants, with nothing at stake for them in terms of postseason seeding, played hard and played well before losing. But the Giants used that solid performance as a springboard to a playoff run that culminated with a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots.

The flip side to that equation was this season's Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick allowed his regulars to take the field for the regular season finale at Houston and lost a key player, wide receiver Wes Welker, to a season-ending knee injury on the opening drive. The Patriots, minus Welker, were dysfunctional on offense last weekend and lost in the opening round of the playoffs to the Ravens.

There is no clear-cut answer, it seems, about the right way for a club to enter the playoffs.

"There's only a way that's right for your team," one veteran player, New York Jets guard Alan Faneca, said at the end of the regular season. "But it's not the same for every team."

Said Cross, who played on three Super Bowl-winning teams with the 49ers: "I think it's a product of sports talk and around-the-clock sports news. People need something to pick at and pick apart. There's no right way and wrong way to do it. It's what fits that particular team.

"Everyone talks about Bill Polian because it didn't work for the Colts a few times, but he's not the first one to face this. . . . If you've ever been on a championship team, you're pretty clear why you're there. It's to win the last game, not to go undefeated. Ask the Patriots how they feel about their 18-1 season."

The awarding of draft picks has been mentioned as a possible incentive for playoff-bound teams to use their standout players in games at the end of the regular season. But that could be viewed as using the NFL draft to help the league's best teams instead of its worst clubs, and Cross said it's not the way to go.

"One thing for sure you're not gonna do," Cross said, "is award draft choices to an undefeated team for playing the starters."

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