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Colts take a pass on perfection

Coach Jim Caldwell pulls Peyton Manning and other key players early to protect them for the playoffs, and Indianapolis' bid for a perfect season ends amid boos with a 29-15 home loss to the Jets.

December 28, 2009|By Sam Farmer
  • Colts receiver Austin Collie goes head over heels after Jets safety Eric Smith makes the tackle following a reception Sunday.
Colts receiver Austin Collie goes head over heels after Jets safety Eric… (Brian Spurlock / US Presswire )

Reporting from Indianapolis — You don't send a rookie to do a most valuable player's job.

The Indianapolis Colts reminded everyone of that Sunday, replacing three-time MVP Peyton Manning with first-year backup Curtis Painter in the third quarter . . .

And bidding farewell to the chance for a perfect season.

The playoff-minded New York Jets took full advantage of the quarterback swap, quickly erasing a five-point deficit and muscling their way to a 29-15 victory before a bitterly disappointed packed house at Lucas Oil Stadium.

On the same field where New England's Bill Belichick famously made the decision to go for it on fourth down -- a choice that probably cost the Patriots a victory -- first-year Colts Coach Jim Caldwell did something even more controversial.

In the interest of keeping his stars healthy for the postseason, he abruptly pointed them to the sideline, taking his foot off the accelerator along the highway to history. The Colts are 14-1.

"I was told that potentially could be the plan," said a somber Manning, who had directed the Colts to 23 consecutive regular-season victories, an NFL record. "So I wasn't surprised when that news was told to me. . . .

"I feel like this was kind of the organizational philosophy that we stuck with. Still had a chance to win the game. Disappointed that we didn't."

Painter, who had yet to take an NFL snap before Sunday, completed his first pass but couldn't do much more than that. The second time he dropped back, he was stripped of the ball while trying to throw, and the Jets recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

The crowd booed ever louder, and by the start of the fourth quarter people had begun heading for the exits. By game's end, there were 10 empty seats for every filled one.

"That put him in a tough spot," Manning said of Painter. "That's a tough defense, multiple looks, multiple schemes, good players."

Caldwell said he never considered putting Manning back in the game. He said he told the starters at halftime they would get one more series -- a plan that was unaltered by New York's returning the second-half kickoff for a touchdown.

"Every guy, you ask them if they want to go, and they want to go the distance," Caldwell said. "It's up to us to make the decisions, and so we did. The main focus for us is just to make certain that we're ready to go. The most important season obviously is the one that's coming up."

There are no guarantees, of course, that the strategy will work. The Colts have rested players at the end of the season before and have come out flat in the playoffs. There's a good chance that the only way the Colts can placate their supporters now is by winning the Super Bowl. Anything short of that, and the spotlight will be focused squarely on this decision.

"The big thing is that we're looking at trying to get a delicate balancing act between keeping ourselves sharp and making certain the guys are healthy and ready to go," Caldwell said.

The game had effects that reverberated throughout the AFC and reshaped the playoff race. Now, the Jets -- whose own coach mistakenly believed a week ago that his team had been eliminated -- control their own destiny. If they beat Cincinnati on Sunday, they're in. What's more, that game could be easier for New York because the Bengals, like the Colts, have clinched their division and might choose to rest their best players.

As it stands, Baltimore and the Jets have the inside track on the two wild-card spots, and Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Miami and Jacksonville could be left out in the cold.

"I could care less how we get in, I just want to get in the tournament," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "We had some bad luck this year, we lost some heartbreaking games."

Scott said he could sense the frustration building in the stadium every time Painter trotted back onto the field.

"They're spoiled around here," he said. "They've got a great player like Peyton Manning, who I believe is the MVP of the league. You take him out and I don't think that team wins five, six games. He's that important to that organization.

"We were starting to get to him a little bit, and at that point they figured, 'Why risk it?' They want to win Super Bowls. That's their philosophy. That's their right to do it. I'll send them a Christmas card: Thank you."

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