The League

Leonard Shapiro
Columnist

Leonard Shapiro

Washington Post sports reporter, editor and columnist who has served on the NFL HOF Selection Committee.

Pressure's on Indy

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The pressure is always excruciating for any playoff team in the postseason, but the one franchise that must produce, or else, above all others over the next three weeks has to be the Indianapolis Colts.

This is a team that went 14-0 and seemed well on its way to 15-0, holding a 15-10 lead against the N.Y. Jets early in the third quarter of their next to last regular season game. That's when head coach Jim Caldwell, with the full blessing of owner Jim Irsay and team president Bill Polian, decided to pull Payton Manning, the better to protect his most valuable asset going into the postseason.

Never mind that the Colts had a chance to make history, not only with a 16-0 regular season, but the very real possibility of finishing as the first 19-0 team, arguably the most stunning team accomplishment of all.

In defending the decision to bench Manning, Polian described 16-0 that week as "inconsequential" in comparison to the team's only goal--winning the Super Bowl. So why risk Manning against a physically punishing N.Y. Jets' defense?

I might have bought into that thinking until the Colts final game of the season, when the coach and team management had no problem allowing tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne to play in a truly meaningless game against the Buffalo Bills. Why did they play? To become the fourth wide-receiver-tight end tandem to each have 100 receptions in a season and for Clark to join Tony Gonzaelez as the only two tight ends ever to have 100 catches.

By the way, the Colts also had secured home field advantage in the playoffs before they played and beat Jacksonville to go 14-0. And yet, Manning, Clark and Wayne all played start to finish against the Jaguars, also risking a significant injury. Why wasn't that game inconsequential, as well?

It all looks good at the moment for the Colts. Yes, their key starters will be available in their first playoff game, against the dangerous Ravens. They have an MVP quarterback, a high-powered offense and will be playing at home, indoors, in sublime conditions of no wind or snow or sloppy field.

And yet, the pressure should be intense. For one, they're playing a Baltimore team that would like nothing better than to knock out a franchise that once actually belonged to Baltimore, until Jim Irsay's old man slithered out of town under cover of darkness one wintry night and took his team to Indianapolis.

For another, since 1999, the Colts are 0-3 in the playoffs after earning a first-round bye, using the same rest-the-starters approach in the season finale before two of those losses. And finally, after sacrificing 16-0 and a place in the record book by insisting the only focus was on the big picture of winning the Super Bowl, you might even say that a loss Saturday night would be very consequential, indeed.

By Leonard Shapiro  |  January 15, 2010; 11:15 AM ET  | Category:  Indianapolis Colts Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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