Coach says healthy starters will play
Apparently, Jim Caldwell has heard their pleas.
On Monday, the Indianapolis Colts first-year coach walked into his regular news conference and announced that "healthy" starters would play Thursday night at Jacksonville.
"We're going to approach the 14th game exactly like we did one through 13. We're going to prepare just like we did for the first 13 and we're going to play just like we did the first 13," the still-unbeaten Caldwell said. "The only thing that would deter anyone from playing is a health issue."
On the surface, it looks like a major change for a team that has lost playoff games after earning first-round byes in 1999, 2005 and 2007. And with 34 or 35 days between the last significant regular-season game and Indy's next meaningful game in the divisional round, there is concern the Colts may get rusty.
The decision may be intended to prevent that from happening even though team president Bill Polian has consistently said he thinks rustiness, momentum and mojo are myths.
Caldwell, though, has clearly left some wiggle room.
Last week's injury report included nearly two dozen players, 13 of them starters. Among those making the list: Manning (glute), Wayne (foot), defensive captain Gary Brackett (foot) and Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis (quad). All played Sunday when the Colts (13-0) clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs. Caldwell did not say whether they would play this week.
Plus, he isn't saying how long the starters may play against Jacksonville.
"We're not going to assign numbers, in terms of plays, for anybody," Caldwell said. "We didn't do that for the first 13 games, and we're not going to do it for No. 14, either."
Which, of course, begs the question: Will the Colts make a real effort to join the New England Patriots in the 16-0 club?
Colts players and coaches in Indy have repeatedly denied any desire for an undefeated season, saying instead their goals were winning the AFC South title, getting a first-round bye and clinching the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Done, done and done. Indy wrapped all that up with Sunday's 28-16 win over the Denver Broncos, which also gave the Colts NFL records for consecutive regular-season wins (22) and wins in a decade (114).
Even with so little at stake, the team may be changing its attitude.
"I guarantee you that the closer we get to being undefeated, more of these guys are going to want to play and be part of something that's never been done," Wayne said last week.
He's referring to being 19-0, not 16-0.
But that's not why Manning wants to play. In previous seasons, he has played for a few early series in meaningless games then turned things over to longtime backup Jim Sorgi.
With Sorgi on injured reserve, the only active backup on the roster is rookie Curtis Painter, who hasn't taken a snap. So Painter could be making his NFL regular-season debut on the road, on a short week, against a division rival fighting for a playoff spot. If Manning goes Thursday, Painter could wait to make his debut in a much friendlier environment the following week, with extra preparation time, when the Colts host the New York Jets.
Clearly, Manning would also like to clean up Sunday's performance, in which he threw three interceptions for the first time since November 2007.
"We'll do whatever Coach Caldwell wants us to do, but I haven't spoken with him," Manning said after Sunday's victory. "I'd like to play against Jacksonville, being that it's Jacksonville, it's a division team, it is a short week and we've got to get ready to play."
Wayne doesn't want to rest, either.
"My body is built to play throughout the regular season," he said. "If I put my two cents in, I want to play. We all have personal goals and I guarantee you that I'll need all these games to get mine.
"Yes, we can get vetoed, that's how it is. He [Caldwell] has the ultimate decision, and we can double all of our votes and still get vetoed," he said.
Not this week.
Caldwell didn't say whether he had consulted players before making this week's decision or whether he would in future weeks when he reassesses the decision to play the starters.
"I think all players are exactly the same. There's a reason they are here, they are highly competitive, they love to play and that's why they're here," Caldwell said. "So we have to look at our team and make certain we stay in rhythm. That's what most important to us."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press