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In the end, perfection didn't matter. But how the Indianapolis Colts lost perfection always will.
This one won't be looked back upon fondly. Particularly if this team doesn't accomplish its all-encompassing goal of winning the Super Bowl. Whatever happens from here on out, the Colts' 29-15 loss to the New York Jets will always feel a little cheap. And why wouldn't it? Indianapolis didn't suffer its first loss fighting – at least not at full strength. It didn't lose to a superior opponent, or even by a fluky play. Instead, it lost because it chose to give history away. It lost out of fear and unproven calculation.
Peyton Manning talks with backup QB Curtis Painter in the fourth quarter. Painter had one interception and one lost fumble.
(Michael Conroy/AP Photo)
Not that I blame Manning, who toed the party line but seemed to wince as much as the rest of us when he found out he was being removed from Sunday's game. Manning was diplomatic and said all the right things afterward, but his body language said otherwise. As the game slipped away, he refused to take his helmet off and looked like a guy who wanted what we all wanted – an honest four quarters. An honest shot at history.
I can't say I know Manning. I've spoken to him very briefly a handful of times over nine years of covering the NFL. But I have listened to him enough to know he respects history. I know he respects the lineage of the game. I know he believes there is a right and wrong way to win or lose games. And I can guarantee it doesn't involve sitting on your hands when you still have something to play for.
But that's what the Colts did midway through the third quarter, benching Manning and others while still nursing a 15-10 lead. If the dangerous edge of health is a problem, why play them at all? Why let them warm up? Why is 2½ quarters so much more risk-effective than four? If 16-0 wasn't a goal, and staying healthy is, then by that logic, Manning and Co. should have been shelved as soon as the No. 1 seed was sewn up in the AFC. And if "staying sharp" is why they played in this game, then what is the threshold for that?
That's what truly stings about this loss. This wasn't a 13-1 team playing out the string, as we've seen so often in the past. In those situations, I can respect sitting your starters. But not when there is genuinely something left to accomplish. Not when you are 14-0 (actually, 14½-0) and have a rare chance at something special. I respect that Colts coach Jim Caldwell didn't see it that way. But I can't believe that everyone agreed with him. I refuse to believe Manning didn't care about doing something that one team in the history of the NFL has done. Something that Tom Brady(notes) – the quarterback whom he will always be measured against – couldn't do.
If you step back and think about it, a game like this flies in the face of what the NFL promotes with its brand. It goes against the grain of what its own players so often preach: that you don't give up in the NFL. You don't roll over. No matter the circumstances. Didn't we just have this whole debate about Randy Moss(notes)? Why is it abominable that a player would coast late in an unwinnable game, but it's totally fine that the Colts pull their starters in the third quarter of a game that absolutely could have been won? Don't they both violate the same spirit – that this isn't a league that tolerates a white-flag mentality?
If we criticize players for saving their bodies and taking plays off, then we should criticize teams that essentially do the same thing. A team doing it for strategic purposes should be no more acceptable than a player who does it for selfish reasons. Think of all the AFC teams that needed the Jets to lose on Sunday. How do you think they feel knowing that the Jets' opponent basically rolled over? Think they might feel a little cheated?
Well, they should. We all should. Not because we won't see a 16-0 season, but because whenever we think about why, we'll remember the Colts throwing in the towel. And I bet someone like Peyton Manning will remember it that way, too.
Here are some of this Week 16's other winners and losers …
Carnell Williams rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown.
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not only did they do the improbable and beat the Saints, they came back from a 17-0 deficit to do it and rolled up 439 yards of offense. Carnell Williams(notes) churned out another quality game and has a chance to surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season. Not bad for a guy whose career was supposedly over last season. It will be interesting to see if the Bill Cowher talk drowns out some of the strides Tampa has made in back-to-back wins.
• Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes)
He's still getting some pressure that is impacting his accuracy, but his ability to convert the big play makes a huge difference for the Falcons. His season of lumps has a chance to end on a positive note in the finale against Tampa Bay. There will be some more work done on the offensive line this offseason, even with some of the pressing defensive needs.
• Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak
It has been a temperamental season for Kubiak, who has seemed to hop on and off the hot seat several times. But with the win over Miami, the Texans have a three-game win streak and back-to-back road victories. If the Texans beat New England in the season finale, Kubiak should be on rock solid footing. But even if he doesn't, he may have saved his job on Sunday.
• The Green Bay Packers running game
Ryan Grant(notes) has five rushing touchdowns in the last three weeks and is playing some of his strongest football since the end of the 2007 season. The trio of Grant, Brandon Jackson(notes) and Ahman Green(notes) finished with six total touchdowns. The last-second road loss to Pittsburgh aside, this is one of the scariest teams out there right now, particularly with the running game becoming a more prolific part of the offense. This looks like the NFC's version of San Diego.
• The Carolina Panthers offense
There is no denying it: The Panthers offense has slowly come to life since Matt Moore(notes) took over for Jake Delhomme(notes). Moore has seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games. It's amazing what happens when a team is completing passes and not turning the ball over with regularity. Jonathan Stewart's(notes) 206 rushing yards provided dominant balance. Delhomme will reportedly be back next season, but I'm not sure how he retains his starting job.
• Cleveland Browns running back Jerome Harrison(notes)
Coming off his monster 286 yard rushing game last week, the Browns are committed to giving Harrison his shot at winning the job. He took another step in that direction, rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown on 39 carries. But you have to wonder what will happen to Harrison if team president Mike Holmgren hires a new head coach. It's unlikely he would be handed anything by a new regime. One thing seems certain no matter who is in charge: the running game hasn't missed Jamal Lewis(notes).
• New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
This is what happens when you don't get pressure on Brady: he completes 23 of 26 passes and throws four touchdowns without breaking a sweat. With Jacksonville's lacking pass rush, this was a tailor-made tuneup for the postseason. The running game was solid, too. At some point, you have to tip your cap to the offensive line, which hasn't allowed a sack of Brady in four straight games.
• The Cincinnati Bengals
In spite of all the adversity with the death of Chris Henry and the recent offensive struggles on the field, the Bengals gutted out a win over Kansas City and punched their playoff ticket. The offense still lacks an explosive quality, which could become a problem against some of the high-powered AFC teams. But the Bengals have also shown the ability to slow games down with Cedric Benson(notes) and win in a more patient, grinding style. It might be time to start talking contract extension with coach Marvin Lewis.
Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley disrupts the the pass of Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Woodley also had two sacks.
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
• The Pittsburgh Steelers defense
They came as close to looking dominant as they have in a long time, notching four sacks of Joe Flacco(notes) and forcing three turnovers against the Ravens. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes) also notched a pair of sacks, giving him his second straight season with double-digit sacks. The Steelers have given themselves one more breath in the postseason hunt, but you have to cringe when you think of the five games that were lost by three points or less this season. This team should have iced its postseason berth already.
• The Arizona Cardinals defense
The unit operates with so much more intensity at home, and showed it against a lackluster and woefully undermanned Rams team, producing four sacks and four turnovers. The rhythm of this unit is more vital than ever, with it becoming clear the offense is too inconsistent to carry this team the way it did last season.
• The San Francisco 49ers defense
They beat up Detroit to the tune of six turnovers and two sacks, and held running back Maurice Morris(notes) to 37 yards on 18 carries. Patrick Willis(notes) has to be the best middle linebacker in the NFL. And with a very winnable finale against St. Louis, the 49ers have a shot at 8-8 and a respectable step in the right direction. With some offseason tweaks, it would be a disappointment if this wasn't a playoff team in 2010.
• Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes)
He made some huge plays in the fourth quarter that made the difference in the win over Denver, particularly the 27-yard run that helped take some heat off his defense when the Eagle eventually did have to punt. His 27-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin(notes), which was a fantastic catch, essentially won the game. This is the seventh time during McNabb's career that the team has registered 10 wins or more in the regular season. Very impressive.
• The New York Jets
Not only did they end Indianapolis' shot at 16-0, but they put themselves into position for a playoff berth with a win next week. That almost seems unreal when you consider a few of the monumentally bad games this team has had this season. To the Jets' credit, they never caved when things got tough. Coach Rex Ryan has to get some respect for that. And how about running back Thomas Jones(notes)? His 105 rushing yards against the Colts mark his seventh 100-yard game of this season. And he would have eight if he'd gotten one more yard in the 26-3 win over Tampa. So much for him being done at 30.
Saints kicker Garrett Hartley watches from the sideline after missing a potential game-winning field goal against the Buccaneers.
(Bill Feig/AP Photo)
• The New Orleans Saints
There is no guarantee John Carney(notes) would have made they 37-yard winning field goal that Garrett Hartley(notes) missed, but it definitely looks bad coming in the first game after Carney was let go. There should be more concern about the offensive struggles in back-to-back weeks. Not to mention the defense giving up 878 total yards to Dallas and Tampa Bay. The Saints are losing momentum fast.
• The Miami Dolphins defense
The Dolphins surprisingly got their bell rung early against Houston, falling into a 27-0 hole with 4:25 still remaining in the first half. The Dolphins fought back, but from a pressure standpoint, there is still a lot to be desired from this roster. Some of the vital pieces of that 3-4 defense are looking old and a step slow.
• The Seattle Seahawks offense
This unit is averaging eight points per game in three straight losses. And those struggles haven't exactly come against defensive powerhouses. The offensive line has a lot to do with the ineffectiveness, as well as the diminished play of Matt Hasselbeck(notes) of late. But with the Seahawks having scored 10 points or less in six of their 15 games this season, and the play-calling not particularly creative, there is a lot of work to do on this side of the ball.
• The Oakland Raiders
Just as quickly as the Raiders give fans a reason for optimism, they turn around and fall flat on their face against what should have been an inferior opponent. Clearly Charlie Frye's(notes) turnovers cost the Raiders the game, but he never should have been throwing the ball 45 times in the first place. If the Raiders aren't trying to get Michael Bush(notes) and Darren McFadden(notes) developmental touches at this stage of a lost season, I don't know what they are playing for. They should be playing for 2010.
Tom Coughlin and the Giants are 3-7 in their last ten games.
(Nick Laham/Getty Images)
• The New York Giants
This has to go down as one of the most embarrassing losses of Tom Coughlin's tenure in New York. It was unthinkable that in a game vital to the Giants' playoff hopes, they would get stomped by a Panthers team that was missing both starting offensive tackles and running back DeAngelo Williams(notes). The 31-0 hole to begin the game was staggering. And man, Chris Canty(notes) has to have been one off the most disappointing free-agent signings in a long time.
• The Jacksonville Jaguars defense
Opponents have scored 70 points in the last two weeks against the Jaguars' defense, with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady throwing a combined eight touchdowns in those two games. Jacksonville didn't notch a single sack in either of those losses, highlighting once again how the pass rush has been the most significant problem this season. Finding an impact pass rusher in the offseason should be priority No. 1.
• The Baltimore Ravens
They had their postseason fate in their hands, and put themselves right back on the brink of getting bounced. Ray Rice(notes) is one of the league's best weapons, but something still has to be done about some of the skill position pieces around Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco. It's time to get a player (Anquan Boldin(notes)?) who can be a No. 1 and move Derrick Mason(notes) over to the No. 2 spot. That player simply isn't on the roster.
• The Detroit Lions
I'm not sure what more you can say. With Matthew Stafford(notes) and Kevin Smith(notes) out for the season, I don't give them a chance to beat a turnover-prone team like Chicago in the finale. I'm not sure any part of this team has made concrete progress this season, including all-world wideout Calvin Johnson(notes). And in the one year that they should legitimately want the No. 1 pick in the draft, it looks like they'll be locked into No. 2. Zero-and-16 in 2008 was atrocious. This wasn't much better.
• The Denver Broncos
They've pushed themselves to the brink of falling out of the playoffs and spent the second half of the season alternating between sputtering on offense and struggling on defense. And running back Knowshon Moreno(notes) has hit a wall in the last three games (51 carries, 123 yards, no TDs). Even if this team squeaks into the playoffs, it has first-round loss written all over it.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The way the Saints' Mike Bell(notes) runs the football when he gets consistent carries. He's got quickness and power, and plays with a lot of energy. He's probably one of the most underrated running backs in the league. If he makes it to free agency, he could help a lot of backfields in the league next season.
The Packers' A.J. Hawk (50) runs past the Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck after intercepting a pass during the first half.
(Jim Prisching/AP Photo)
Loathed: The first-quarter interception thrown by Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck to Green Bay's A.J. Hawk(notes). It had to be one of the most bizarre turnovers of the season. There wasn't a Seahawk within 10 yards of Hawk, and it looked like Hasselbeck was actually dumping the ball off to the linebacker on the play. It has been a long time since Hasselbeck (19-of-37, 198 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs vs. Packers) has looked so bad in back-to-back weeks.
Loved: The way Saints running back Reggie Bush(notes) slammed on the brakes on a sideline catch and let Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) fly by the play and out of bounds. When healthy, Bush still has the moments where his athleticism is awesome.
Loathed: The Giants' tackling. For a defense that was expected to be elite this season, this unit has been consistently disappointing. While it's not necessarily a bad defense, it is by no means one of the league's best. And there were at least a dozen missed tackles in the must-have game against Carolina.
Loved: Seeing Panthers wideout Steve Smith come back and throw a crushing block on Giants linebacker Michael Boley(notes) on a scramble by Carolina quarterback Matt Moore. It looked for a moment like Boley was going to hammer Moore on the play, and Smith came out of nowhere to put Boley, who is 40 pounds heavier, on his rear. Great awareness from a fantastic player. You don't always see that in Week 16 for a team out of the playoffs.
Loathed: The season-ending injury suffered by Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga(notes). That defense, already missing lineman Antwan Odom(notes), can accrue only so many injuries before it starts to become too much. Maualuga added pop to the linebackers, and he'll be sorely missed.
Loved: Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) ridiculous scramble on a throw to Mike Wallace(notes) with 4:25 left in the first quarter. Roethlisberger literally ran Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe(notes) into a circle on the play and made him look foolish. There might not be a more elusive quarterback in an NFL pocket.
Derrick Mason reacts after dropping a pass in the end zone during the fourth quarter against the Steelers. The Steelers won 23-20.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)
Loathed: The painfully wide-open touchdown drop by Ravens wideout Derrick Mason. You won't find a more maddening foible in such an important game. Considering what was on the line, it was one of the worst drops of the season.
Loved: The 55-yard run by New England's Sammy Morris(notes) in the second quarter against Jacksonville. Morris should have been stopped at the line of scrimmage. Instead, he bounced off two defenders and eluded two others.
Loathed: The tripping penalty that negated a beautiful 62-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne(notes) to Ted Ginn in the fourth quarter. The flag was thrown on running back Lousaka Polite(notes). In the old Bill Parcells days, this was the kind of thing that got you cut.