Champagne is a hot seller in South Florida tonight.
The dream of a perfect season, inspired by so many spectacular plays throughout the Colts' 14-0 start, was dashed in a little more than a quarter. It ended up dying with little more than a whimper as the Jets pulled away to a 29-15 win.
I call it a dream, but it's obvious now that Colts' coach Jim Caldwell and GM Bill Polian didn't share the dream. That's fine. They make the decisions, I don't.
But in so many ways, this decision may have backfired.
Before I begin my rambling, I must state the obvious: I was firmly entrenched in the "go for 16-0" camp. I completely understand the argument for saving your players for the playoffs, but I remember 2005 all too well. A hot Colts team rested many players late in the season, and came out flat in its first playoff game.
I wouldn't have batted an eye at a loss last week to Jacksonville. The Jaguars, like the Jets this week, were a team desperate to make the playoffs. A loss would have meant nothing to the Colts. Instead, most of the starters played throughout the game. Others saw spot duty. The result was magnificent.
And suddenly perfection was within sight.
In 2005, the Colts were 13-0 and stumbled against San Diego. The loss meant nothing in the standings, and the argument to play for a perfect regular season was over.
Last week's win gave the Colts a legitimate chance to finish 16-0. Wins against the offensively challenged Jets and the perpetually challenged Bills were doable.
For most of the night, it looked like the Colts would copy the game plan they had against Jacksonville.
And then the gameplan changed, and history was, well, history.
Now, besides saving the health of the starters for the playoffs, the other argument against perfection was the pressure it put on the team to keep winning. It was argued that a team would be better off losing in the regular season rather than losing in the playoffs.
But why lose at all?
I'd argue this puts even more pressure on the Colts. Suddenly, it's the Super Bowl or bust for this team. 16-0, 15-1, or 14-2. It didn't really matter how the Colts finished the season. With the start they had, not winning the Super Bowl would be remarkably disappointing for this team.
Now the Colts have to win the Super Bowl. A 16-0 season would have put them in the history books forever.
People argue that the 2007 Patriots 16-0 is meaningless without the Super Bowl win. No one remembers the Super Bowl loser.
If that's the case, why do we keep bringing the 2007 Patriots up?
Lose in the playoffs, and suddenly the 2009 team and all its accomplishments fade into history. It's almost a shame considering how memorable this season has been.
But, honestly, I can get over all that. The Jets' loss does mean absolutely nothing. Yet, it was the way it was handled that might mean trouble for the Colts down the road.
Up 15-10, Caldwell decided Peyton Manning had had enough. He was pulled, and Curtis Painter was brought in to finish the game. Rookie, meet the league's best pass defense.
On a side note, shame on all the fans that booed Painter. I hated the decision, but he's still a Colt.
Pulling Manning sent the message to the rest of the team that this game didn't matter. And the rest of the team played like it.
The defense, which had played absolutely stellar for nearly three quarters, was suddenly letting the Jets run over, around, and on top of them.
In all, the Colts lost any will to win the game when Manning hit the bench. That's disturbing.
In postgame interviews, Manning was diplomatic, talking about how it was the organization's philosophy to rest for the playoffs. But for the Colts to roll over should be cause for concern.
Manning and the offense had moved the ball effectively. The defense had kept the Jets out of the end zone. Save for horrible coverage on Brad Smith's kickoff return, the Colts' performance was flawless for two and a half quarters.
It was abysmal for the remainder of the game.
Rarely do I see a poor game plan from the Colts, but tonight was one of those rare instances. The plan was to stick Painter in at some point, but the Colts didn't seem to have a plan for Painter once he was in. Predictable play calling, such as starting out with first down runs, put Painter into must-pass situations. It was a no-win situation for Painter, and not ideal for his first regular season action.
I feel I need to stress the fact that this loss was meaningless in the standings. But listen to the postgame interviews. This loss hurt. You don't start 14-0 and not have a loss hurt.
Can this team rebound? Of course. If the 2009 Colts are anything, they are resilient. There's little reason to doubt that this team won't be ready for its first game of the playoffs.
Still, the loss, regardless of how you felt about going for 16-0, left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.
It's been a while since the Colts and their fans have had this taste. Hopefully, it's a while before they have it again.
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