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Jacksonville Game May Be Colts' Most Important of Regular Season

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Jacksonville Game May Be Colts' Most Important of Regular Season
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There's little doubt that the 2009 Colts' season has been full of memorable moments in important games. The dramatic comeback wins against New England and Houston come to mind. Then there's the up-and-down struggle against the Broncos that clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs.

However, none may be more important than tonight's Jacksonville game.

I know, it's crazy to think that a 13-0 team that has accomplished its main goals of the season has anything important left to do in the final three regular season games.

In fact, the game means absolutely nothing in terms of seeding. The Colts could lose the next three games and still head into the playoffs as the AFC's No. 1 seed.

On paper, the game means more than a chance for the Colts to make it to 14-0, which would be a franchise first.

But what's the cliche? Games aren't played on paper?

Tonight's game against the rival Jaguars will go a long way in determining how coach Jim Caldwell will play the rest of the regular season schedule.

In 2005, Dungy actually played his starters in Game 14 against the Chargers. That was when the Colts last started the season 13-0, and that word, perfection, was being tossed around.

The Colts lost that game, and the starters proceeded to make just token appearances in the next two contests.

And we all know what happened after that.

A flat Colts team struggled early to the Steelers, a team the Colts had blown out during the regular season. A frantic comeback ended just short—or should I say, way wide—and the miracle season of 2005 was over. The 13-0 suddenly held little value.

A loss tonight could open the door for a sequel of 2005. Don't tell me the parallels of the season haven't entered your mind.

13-0 starts. Possibility of perfection. Questions of how long the starters will play.

A loss, and those memories of 2005 suddenly come flooding back.

Yes, this isn't the same team it was in 2005. It's a more battle-hardened team. The 2005 team breezed through much of the regular season. This year's Colts have had to win games the hard way most of the time.

This team wouldn't be scared by a tough game in the divisional round of the playoffs.

But if the Colts wake up Friday morning with a 13-1 record, what incentive does Caldwell have to play Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, or any other prominent starter?

What exactly will the Colts accomplish against the Jets or Bills by having Curtis Painter hand off to Chad Simpson and throw six-yard curls to Hank Baskett?

Wouldn't it be better to just win tonight?

Win tonight and the Colts would wake up Friday morning with a feeling they've never had before. The feeling of being 14-0 and just two games from a pristine regular season.

But it's not the pursuit of perfection that I crave. It's what the pursuit means. It keeps the Colts playing meaningful ball throughout December and into January.

It keeps Manning on the field with a chance to continue working out every little kink in the offense with guys like Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.

It keeps the defense focused on shutting down offenses that are determined to win games.

Remember, the next two games the Colts play are against teams that are still in the hunt. Essentially, the Jags and Jets will be in playoff mode when they play the Colts.

What better way to keep your team focused than by going against teams that are fighting for their playoff lives?

One of the main arguments I've heard against going 16-0 is the pressure that mounts with each passing win.

Pressure? Did those that make that argument see the Colts comeback in the fourth quarter in five straight games? This team doesn't know anything about pressure.

The other argument is about avoiding injuries. If a player needs to heal, sure, let them rest. Caldwell is smart enough to take the healthy players he has and keep them healthy through proper game management.

In the end, there is something for the Colts to play for tonight. Lose, and we will be waiting nearly a month before we see a true Colts performance again.

Manning or not, does any Colts fan really want to wait a month to see if the Colts can flip the switch?

Win, and it gives the Colts something to keep playing for. That may be the best game plan of all.

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