Commentary

Saints and Colts can't let up now

With a chance for perfection, unbeaten teams need to keep the pedal to the metal

Originally Published: December 13, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints wouldn't stick it to us, would they?

They wouldn't go full fetal position because it's the safe, sensible, PBS-fundraising-dull way of treating the final three games of their seasons, right?

They wouldn't dare commit the mortal sin of sports and mess with a streak -- and not just any streak, but a 13-0 streak (times two) -- because that's what the coach-by-the-numbers NFL handbook says, would they?

Because if Colts coach Jim Caldwell and Saints coach Sean Payton are thinking about turning their backs on the rarest of opportunities -- a perfect season -- then I'd like to order a forearm shiver to the head for both of them.

Look, there's a reason why we forever remember the 1972 Miami Dolphins but have to think hard about who won the Super Bowl just three seasons ago. The difference is perfection, and few teams ever get the chance to say "I do" to that kind of football history.

"I think obviously you'd love to see two 18-0 teams in the Super Bowl," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "That would be tremendous and unprecedented for the league. But I can only know about us. We'd love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game."

No, no, no. The biggest focus should be preparing yourself for football immortality. Embrace the possibilities. Welcome the pressure. Crave the attention.

"We'll go and take some kind of a [players] poll, but we know where the final decision lies," Caldwell said after Sunday's 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos. "We will certainly listen to most of the guys, guys that have been around here. So we'll have a conference on it or something."

Or something? Will somebody tell Caldwell that the '72 Dolphins love this sort of muddled talk? This is why they've popped champagne corks year after year.

Unbeaten team clinches bye.

Unbeaten team decides to rest key players going into stretch.

Unbeaten team does not stay unbeaten.

Pop goes the bubbly.

The Colts and the Saints are both 13-0 with three regular-season games remaining. The Colts and the Saints are both guaranteed first-round playoff byes. The Colts now have home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason, and the Saints are close to securing the same in the NFC.

So far, only Saints quarterback Drew Brees has said he "absolutely" wants to make a run at 19-0. At last, someone willing to admit how precious these moments are.

"Because we're here, aren't we?" Brees recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Who knows if we will ever get this close again?"

Exactly. What's the point of winning 13 in a row and then tapering down for the playoffs? All you do is risk losing your football mojo.

"It's a great, huge topic for analysis and different opinions," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "I don't think there is a right answer. I think whatever plan Coach Caldwell gives us, that will be the right plan because that's what he decides, and that's what we'll carry out. But either way, you're opening yourself up for second-guessing."

That's the responsible, logical approach to the situation. It's precisely what you say when you're being diplomatic. And Manning knows diplomacy.

But if you read between the Manning postgame lines, it seemed he favored Brees' go-for-it scenario. Anybody can play it safe. Only one team -- those '72 Dolphins -- has Super Bowl rings and a zero on the right side of its won-loss record.

"Believe me, I haven't liked starting a game, playing a series and coming out," Manning said.

This isn't the first time the Colts have wandered into 13-0 land. In 2005, then-coach Tony Dungy's team won its first 13 games and clinched home-field advantage. Dungy gave some of his starters R&R time, and the Colts proceeded to lose two of their last three regular-season games and their opening-round playoff game at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.

See, there is a right answer: Play for the game and the history in front of you. Dungy, perhaps influenced by the conservative philosophy of team president Bill Polian, overthought the situation. He chose rest over routine. He grinded the clutch on a Coltsmobile that needed the pedal to the metal.

"Me, personally, I love playing," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "But that's not my decision to make."

"You definitely would love to go for it," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said. "That's not our choice. That's a Caldwell question, and he's going to handle that. But as a player, you definitely want to go for it. You want to keep on playing. That's what we do."

Caldwell studied under Dungy and works for Polian. But still, if his players want to go for 16-0, then Caldwell will listen to his players' poll, right?

"Uh … I don't think that will happen," Brackett said. "They definitely make those decisions, and we follow suit."

That's what I was afraid of.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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