Up until now, the biggest story of the 2009 NFL season has been the dueling undefeated's. Never before have two teams gone without a loss this deep into a season. Neither closes the season with only "cupcake" matchups, yet every game remaining looks very winnable for both.
With a great opportunity to not only advance to 16-0, but follow that with a historic meeting of two 18-0 teams at the Super Bowl, the greatest stumbling block to this run at history could very well be the undefeated teams to themselves.
Indianapolis appears especially likely to give key players significant rest to keep them fresh and avoid injury (as Caldwell already stated he would do). This means the final two regular season matchups against the Jets and Bills (both teams that underwhelmed this year and will be looking to make a statement) pose greater than normal upset potential.
Assuming they hold on to win both, this logic is still questionable. The capacity for unheralded players to step up and perform has been the hallmark of the injury ravaged Colts for the entire year. Peyton Manning aside, no injury would truly devastate this team. The Colts are not a team limping to the finish and looking to get healthy. This degree of caution is unwarranted.
Indianapolis will already be getting a first round bye. Keeping starters on the shelf for longer runs its own risk—that of a potential letdown as a few cobwebs can begin to set in. This idea is not without precedent. In 2007 an injury depleted San Diego team hobbled into Indianapolis for the divisional round playoff match.
Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and LaDainian Tomlinson were all injured before or during the game (at a time when Tomlinson was a much bigger part of the team’s offense). They had just completed a hard fought match against Tennessee and were poised to be shredded by the high powered Colts.
Instead, they scraped to an improbable 28-24 victory. While it can never be truly quantified, Indianapolis appeared to be out of tune during the game, looking more like an early season team trying to get its stride back. One must consider the possibility that the extended rest for key players broke whatever stride they had been hitting to close the season.
Will this be a concern again?
This opportunity for a team to step in and upset the Colts is a larger concern than failing to go 16-0. There will be no easy opponents in the playoffs. Indianapolis is resilient but beatable. To be able to pull off multiple fourth-quarter comebacks a team must start with multiple fourth-quarter deficits.
Assuming the divisional leaders win their respective first rounds, would the Colts wish to spend the first quarter or half getting back in sync against the Chargers, Bengals, or Patriots? All have reason to believe they can beat the Colts, and all have great motivation to do so. If one major complaint can be fielded against Indianapolis over its Peyton Manning-era, it has been the lack of a killer instinct in the playoffs.
With his Super Bowl victory in 2007, Peyton Manning finally shook that critical monkey from his back. Yet, for all of his success and entry into arguments over "greatest quarterback of all time," he still has a mediocre 7-8 record in postseason. The blame is not entirely on him, but he is useful as a time-stamp of this era of Indianapolis football.
With a chance to make history, the Colts should show some of that killer instinct by going out and playing the first unit through the entire sixteen games. Of course by the fourth quarter it is logical to put the most important players on the bench, but play the bulk of the final games full out. Use the time to build momentum just before the playoffs.
If Freeney, Manning, or Wayne is hurt during that time, of course Jim Caldwell will hear fans calling for his head. It is a calculated risk. But after taking that "safe" route for so many years, could one truly say it has ultimately played to the Colts’ benefit?
This was not a fringe wildcard team with a 7-8 record. This was a team that was upset multiple times. If they want for this to be the year they push over .500 in the playoffs, they should show a new look. Go against Buffalo and New York looking to dominate. Show why this team is presently undefeated and let Peyton Manning fight for that MVP award.
The concept holds true for both teams, but I feel that Indianapolis is the most likely to rest starters, and the most susceptible to a potential letdown if they do. Every element of football is a risk. Weighing the potential for disaster (a Jim Sorgi playoff) against the potential benefit (a tenacious team staying hot to win out in the playoffs), it should be concluded that both teams will benefit by not giving too much bench time to their key players, and maintaining as they have all year.