They know all about the uproar and the anger.
They can hear the booing that echoed inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 16. They also expect that the next two weeks will be filled with speculation about how one unpopular decision will affect their future. But here's what you should realize about the Indianapolis Colts: One week of controversy might be the best thing that ever happened to this team.
We all know the story by now. The Colts had a chance to improve their record to 15-0 against the New York Jets and opted to rest their starters for most of the second half. It was a decision that didn't merely lead to the Colts' first loss of the season and the end of their NFL-record 23-game regular-season winning streak. It also turned team president Bill Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell into unlikely villains.
Colts fans blasted the move for days. Many ripped into Polian on his weekly radio show. The vibe inside the Colts' locker room, however, was far more predictable Wednesday afternoon. Those same players who felt frustrated by having to sit were concerned only with what lies ahead.
"I'll admit it wasn't a pleasant experience, but we can be better for it," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "There can be an edge [to the team]. We can have a chip [on our shoulder]. But we do need to move forward."
Manning's comments speak to a critical dynamic that average fans sometimes miss about football teams. Players often benefit from unforeseeable situations. They can take negative experiences and use them as fuel for whatever goals they're about to pursue.
Even in a moment like Sunday—when a previously undefeated team turned into a target of discontent—a spark may have been lit under the Colts, one that could take them all the way to the Super Bowl in Miami.
What the Colts players had to realize after the loss is that they have more reasons than ever to stay focused on winning a championship. They can't get caught up in the white noise around them. They can't be deflated by what could have been a shot at joining the Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in league history. All they can do is steady themselves and figure out how to be at their best when the postseason begins.
As much as people harp on how the Colts threw away an opportunity to make history, the only history that truly matters is who ends up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
They don't give out rings for records. And as much as people lament the dangers of losing momentum at this time of year by "laying off the gas," there is no guarantee that keeping players in meaningless games leads to more success in the postseason. If that were the case, we wouldn't be seeing so many teams resting starters this week.
Momentum actually is a vastly overrated predictor of how a team will do in the postseason.
The Arizona Cardinals didn't have it when they entered last year's playoffs, and they eventually won the NFC title. The New York Giants weren't exciting anybody at the end of the 2007 regular season, but they ultimately stormed to a title. Even the 2006 Colts surprised some people.
That year's Super Bowl champions lost four of their last seven games before taking off in the postseason.
If you want to get a better feel for which teams have a shot at advancing in the postseason, think about the ones that have gone through some adversity. When you look at the teams just mentioned—or other Super Bowl champions such as the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the 2001 New England Patriots—you see squads that had to fight through something to fulfill their dreams.
The Colts already had key injuries to deal with, including the season-ending loss of the Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders. But this latest controversy could be added incentive for them to sharpen their focus.
Now that doesn't mean Caldwell and Polian saw this as a potential benefit of their decision. It does mean that a team that already had outstanding chemistry should have even more resolve moving forward.
"We haven't had a lot of tough Mondays or Wednesdays around here, but it's all about how you respond to it," Manning said. "It's about channeling that frustration into a better place so we can be a better team."
That, ultimately, is what every championship contender has to do. Though the Colts aren't saying it, they know their fans will be with them. They've given the people of Indianapolis too many reasons to be happy over the last decade. In fact, the mere notion that fans would be so outraged by a decision that had plenty of merit still defies logic. It's as if they've forgotten what it was like when that team stank.
Those same fans need to remember that a 14-1 team would be treasured in places like Detroit and St. Louis. They also have to understand that championships can be attained through all types of routes. For the first 14 weeks of the season, the Colts were a team that found all sorts of ways to stay perfect. But now that they've chosen a path of imperfection—and dealt with a week as strange as this—they seem more dangerous than ever as the regular season winds to a close.