You have to wonder how NFL players and coaches feel about the holiday season. When most of us are enjoying time with family, giving and receiving gifts, and relaxing from another year's worth of work, NFL personnel have other things on their minds. Some are fighting for the playoff lives. Less fortunate ones are fighting for their jobs.
The Colts, however, are enjoying the best ever record heading into the holidays. Being 14-0 is great, of course, but several other things have happened to make you feel like this great start may end differently than the 2005 season—a season where the Colts started 13-0 only to lose their opening playoff game to the Steelers.
The first contributing element to the Colts' ongoing winning streak is their approach to the final games of the season. In 2005, the Colts gave it the "college try" in game 14. They lost to the Chargers and proceeded to treat the last two games like preseason contests. Most starters, including Peyton Manning, got token appearances in the final two games.
This year, the Colts won game 14. Sure, their approach was cautious. They played the healthy starters, and the injured played limited roles. Still, there's reason to think the Colts will take the same approach against the Jets this Sunday.
Giving the starters solid work in game 15 will mean less off-time going into the playoffs, win or lose. Win, and it's hard to imagine the Colts not giving their starters significant playing time in the season finale at Buffalo.
The AFC playoff picture is a muddled mess. However, the order of the top four teams is beginning to crystallize. This evolution is excellent news for the Colts.
The Patriots and Chargers seem to be the only teams able to disturb Indianapolis. As it stands now, those two (the Patriots and Chargers) would face each other in the divisional round if the higher seeds win the wild card games.
Now, don't mistake me here; the Colts don't necessarily want to avoid those teams. However, it would be nice to see the Colts' two main obstacles slug it out before making a trip to Indianapolis.
For a Colts team with a history of slow starts in the playoffs, avoiding San Diego or New England would be a very good thing.
The Colts would match up against the Bengals (assuming again that higher seeds prevail). While the Bengals played an emotional game in a close loss to the Chargers, Cincinnati has had struggles offensively. They wouldn't be an easy out, but they are the weakest of the divisional leaders.
Cinderella Isn't At This Ball
In 2005, the Steelers caught fire at the end of the season and rode that momentum to a championship. None of the wild card teams have that potential.
The Titans would be the closest thing to a Cinderella, having won six-of-seven after starting the season 0-6. However, the one loss during that span was to the Colts.
Baltimore is the other possible wild card with the potential to knock off Indianapolis, but the Colts defeated the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this year.
Neither of the aforementioned teams have Steelers' strength of 2005. It's hard to imagine any of the 7-7 teams making it past Cincinnati or New England in the first round.
Jets In Disarray
The Jets' last minute loss to the Falcons last week may have been a win for the Colts. Sure, the Jets are one of many teams still in the playoff picture, but the loss has created some doubt in New York. Most of that worry relates to the inconsistent play of quarterback Mark Sanchez after his hot start.
The Jets still have one of the league's top defenses and the league's best running game. Again, it's not a cake walk, but it's definitely a winnable game. The Jets have scored more than 24 points only four times all year. The Colts have done it five-of-the-last-six games. Win, and only lowly Buffalo stands in the way of a 16-0 regular season.
The main argument against the Colts going 16-0 is the inherited pressure the chase puts on the team. The Saints proved that argument last week; they had struggled for a few games, and Dallas proved good enough to give the Saints their first loss. Maybe the pressure is off, or maybe it's a sign of weakness in New Orleans. Time will tell.
The Colts, though, have thrived in pressure situations. They answered every challenge a desperate Jaguar team threw at them last week, even while playing most of the game without Robert Mathis or Dwight Freeney.
Maybe the Colts aren't the perfect team. They struggle running the ball, and they yield large chunks of yardage on defense. But they are the perfect team to withstand the pressure of a 16-0 season. Fourth-quarter-comebacks an NFL record. The Colts will not be crumble under the weight of a perfect season. In fact, they may relish the opportunity.
Things are definitely shaping up nicely for the Colts as the regular season winds down. The challenge now is for the Colts to maintain their high level of play and take advantage of the opportunity for perfection.