This was passive-aggressiveness at its finest. After throwing for four touchdowns and leading the Colts to a 35-31 come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla., Peyton Manning was asked if he would lobby coach Jim Caldwell to play for a perfect regular season in the final two games.
"We're not going to lobby because that's not what a football team is about," he told NFL Network after improving to 14-0. "The head coach tells us what to do, and we follow his orders. Certainly, players have their hopes and wishes, but it's not set up that way. Caldwell makes the call and we follow, so we'll see what happens."
Innocent enough. But instead of stopping there, Manning added: "The idea is to keep working on some things; so, obviously, personally, I hope we still play."
Manning isn't alone. Defensive end Dwight Freeney could be seen shaking his head in frustration on the sideline as the Jaguars bullied their way to a third-quarter lead. Might Freeney have made a difference on that touchdown drive? Perhaps. But after clinching homefield advantage for the AFC playoffs last Sunday, Caldwell said he plans to rest or limit his players so they can be at full strength in the playoffs; Freeney is nursing an abdominal injury and, therefore, was used only in obvious passing situations.
Truth is, Caldwell is handling the situation the right way. The goal is to win a championship, not chase the 1972 Dolphins at all costs. That Miami squad remains the only team in league history to win a Super Bowl with a perfect record, and even though some Indianapolis players have stated their desire to be the second, Caldwell is not going to proceed blindly against the Jets (at home) and Bills (in Buffalo).
Second-guessers have pointed to history as a reason to go all out. In 2005 and 2007, the Colts rested their regulars after securing a first or second seed, then failed to win a playoff game in each instance. But those defeats were not about being rusty or inactive. The losses were about being outschemed and outexecuted. To wit:
• 2005: The Colts started 13-0, played their regulars the next week in a loss to San Diego, then basically shut it down from there and limited their key guys to two or three series -- maximum -- because they had the No. 1 seed in the playoffs with a 14-2 record. The next time they played a game that mattered, they lost their playoff opener to the Steelers at home. How?
In a loss to Indy two months earlier, Pittsburgh leaned heavily on its running game. But in the rematch the Steelers threw the ball on 12 of their first 17 plays, two which resulted in touchdown passes for a 14-0 lead. The Colts eventually adjusted and were in position to force overtime, but Mike Vanderjagt was wide right on a 46-yard field-goal attempt with 17 seconds to play.
• 2007: Indy clinched the No. 2 seed with a week to go in the regular season and held out or limited its regulars in the finale. Two weeks later, the Colts lost their playoff opener to San Diego, 28-24. Rust had nothing to do with it. In fact, the Colts could not have been sharper to start. They drove 76 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 on their opening possession and were marching for another score on their next offensive series when wide receiver Marvin Harrison fumbled away the ball at the San Diego 17.
Instead of being up 14-0 at home, it was 7-7 after Philip Rivers answered with a touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson. That's not rust; that's turnovers and an inability to make stops. And in the second half, it was San Diego's Norv Turner outcoaching his counterpart (Tony Dungy), making all the right calls despite injuries taking his starting running back and quarterback.
Caldwell is unlikely to rest healthy regulars because the Colts are far from being polished. Thursday night was the seventh time this season they needed to rally in the fourth quarter to win. Jacksonville also exposed some holes in the Colts' run defense, as well as their pass coverage. The Jaguars actually scored on five of their first six possessions, including four touchdowns.
As for Manning, he figures to play extensively in the final two games because he doesn't have an experienced backup. Longtime No. 2 Jim Sorgi is on injured reserve, which means Indy would have to go with rookie 6th-rounder Curtis Painter, if Manning sits. Painter has appeared in as many NFL games as I have, so the likelihood is that Manning will get his wish.
As for perfection, that remains to be seen.