The Indianapolis Colts have steamrolled their way through the NFL this season. But now, with home-field advantage in the playoffs wrapped up and the laurels of a perfect season too hard to resist, the team may be on the cusp of taunting the Sports Gods.
For thirteen games, the Colts have trampled, trounced, and triumphed over every single one of their opponents. They’ve outscored the competition by over 200 points, lead the league in scoring with 392 points, and have surrendered just 180 points, good for second in the NFL.
But the fun doesn’t stop with winning because the Colts don’t just win. They dominate. This team has trailed in a grand total of two football games all season. The last time in the season they were on the losing end of a score was 11 minutes and 43 seconds into their week six game against the Rams. One second later, they took the lead and haven’t been behind in seven games since then.
Already, the Colts have put the finishing touches on their regular season drive. Secure in their division lead, they wrapped up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But still, Coach Tony Dungy won’t commit to resting his regulars, and the rest of the Colts have not let up. The pressure to go 16-0 is strong.
In football, the perfect season has attained a near-holy status mainly through the machinations of the coach of the first and last perfect team. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins tore through the season and captured the Super Bowl. Now, the team, its coach and former players maintain their lofty position in NFL lore by hosting a champagne toast when the last remaining unbeaten team finally loses. Some people hate the arrogance in this move; others see the charm. And nearly everyone is rooting for the Colts to break the spell of those 1972 Dolphins.
It’s foolish, though, for the Colts to take a risk in their efforts to achieve a perfect season. Of course, everyone on the Colts wants to see their team attain football immortality. It’s the nature of an athlete. Records keep legends alive, and everyone wants to become a legend of their time. But 16-0 isn’t important because it is not a Super Bowl trophy. Once the wins come off the board and everyone starts all over again, that 16-0 is meaningless unless it nets a title.
The Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984. Since then, they’ve made it as far as the AFC Championship game just twice. With a real shot at heading into the playoffs as the favorites to win the title, Dungy’s decision — to rest or not to rest — ought to be a no-brainer. When a Super Bowl is a team’s ultimate goal, the best option is to rest your stars and starters in preparation for the playoffs. Baseball teams understand this in September when the rosters expand; now, it’s time for Dungy to end speculation and scale back playing time for his key contributors.
By sitting Peyton Manning, the superstar quarterback with the league’s highest QB rating, Dungy would be protecting the hopes of the franchise. Having Manning on the field for more plays than are necessary to ensure that important home field advantage could be disastrous. Just as Michael Vick or Tom Brady. Those two men matter just as much to their respective team’s playoff hopes as Manning does to the Colts. When Vick and Brady both went down last weekend, Falcons and Patriots fans everywhere held their breaths in the hopes that both would come back this week as good as new.
What happens when, two quarters, two halves, two plays away from 16-0, Manning gets sacked and twists an ankle or worse? What happens if that one extra throw isn’t the difference between a fresh arm in on February 5 and a dead on during the AFC Championship game two weeks earlier? What if? What if? What if? Those are the questions with which Dungy has to grapple.
So far, Dungy hasn’t committed to anything beyond this weekend. Facing the Chargers and QB Drew Brees, the Colts face arguably their toughest challenge to an undefeated season. If they win this weekend, the could go 16-0 without the help of Peyton Manning. Dungy will be playing his A team this weekend in an effort to keep their streak going.
Will pride ruin the title hopes of an entire city? Who knows. To me, the answer is clear: What’s the point in risking it? Let the 1972 Miami Dolphins keep their champagne rituals if need be; 16-0 be damned. Anything less than the trophy is a disappointment for this powerhouse of a football team.