Colts Will Rest Players As Necessary While Trying to Win Regular-Season Finale
INDIANAPOLIS – Tony Dungy doesn't doubt he knows the wishes of Colts players this week.
Neither does he doubt their sincerity.
Dungy, in his seventh season as the Colts' head coach, said recently he knows precisely how players will want to approach the regular-season finale, a game that will be played Sunday in Indianapolis and a game that – as often has been the case for the Colts in recent regular-season finales – has no playoff implications.
They are competitors, Dungy said of the Colts' players, and they will want to win. They will want to play, and not just for a few series.
Dungy knows all this, and he said something else is equally true:
In this case, what they want doesn't much matter.
"They always want to play," Dungy said recently, a few days before the Colts (11-4) began preparing for their 2008 regular-season finale against the Tennessee Titans (13-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.
"They're competitive guys and they would like to play, and they definitely want to win. We'll try to be smart and try to win at the same time."
Such has been the essence of Dungy's pregame statements in several recent regular-season finales, and such is the case this season.
The reason is that although the players want to play, and although the Colts very much want to win for several reasons, Dungy said the bigger truth is that the Colts already have clinched their postseason positioning.
With a 31-24, come-from-behind victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday, December 18, the Colts not only clinched a seventh consecutive playoff appearance – the NFL's longest such ongoing streak – they secured themselves the AFC's No. 5 seed.
The Colts will visit either the San Diego Chargers or Denver Broncos in an AFC Wild Card game January 3-4. The Chargers (7-8) and the Broncos (8-7) will play in San Diego for the AFC West championship Sunday at 8:15 p.m.
The Colts' eight-game winning streak came in the same nail-biting, dramatic fashion that has come to define their 2008 regular-season. The Colts this season have rallied to win four times after facing double-digit deficits on the road, including three games in which they trailed by that margin in the fourth quarter.
During the eight-game winning streak, they trailed in six of the games, and squandered a 10-point lead in another before beating the Chargers, 23-20, in San Diego.
During the span, they also beat three defending AFC division champions – New England, San Diego and Pittsburgh – in a three-week span, and six of the eight games were decided by seven points or less. In two of the games – at Cleveland and at Jacksonville – the Colts' game-winning points came on defensive touchdowns.
The streak came after the Colts began the season 3-4 for the first time in a decade, and enabled them to choose how they wanted to approach the season finale.
"It's been a very different season," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who has thrown 16 touchdown passes and three interceptions during the streak. "For us to win eight in a row now after being 3-4, it's really what we had to do. We had no choice but to do that in order to get into the playoffs. It's certainly been a challenge. We've overcome a lot of obstacles, injuries – just different scenarios.
"We've done it as a team, which has been nice."
The Titans, who have led the South since Week 1, clinched the South in early November, and because the four division champions in each conference are seeded Nos. 1-4 in each conference, Indianapolis cannot be seeded higher than fifth.
Unlike the past five seasons, when the Colts won the AFC South each season, they are not assured of a home playoff game, but as was the case in 2004, 2005 and 2007 – seasons in which the Colts clinched AFC South titles and playoff positioning with games remaining in the season – the Colts face a decision entering the finale:
1) Play all of their players in a game that means nothing in terms of standings.
2) Rest players as needed to prepare for the playoffs.
The Colts in 2004, 2005 and 2007 started many regulars in late games with no playoff implications, losing to Denver in 2004, San Diego and Seattle in 2005 and Tennessee in that situation last season. They also beat Arizona at the RCA Dome in a similar situation in the 2005 regular-season finale.
A year ago, the Colts played the Titans at the RCA Dome in a regular-season finale in which Tennessee needed a victory to make the playoffs. With the Colts already having secured the No. 2 seed, Pro Bowl players such as quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne started the game, but left by halftime.
Manning always has started in games after the Colts had clinched, but typically has played only a series or two. The lone exception was 2005, when the Colts clinched the South with a 13-0 record. Manning played the entirety of a 26-17 loss to San Diego, but didn't play past halftime in a loss at Seattle or in a victory at home over Arizona the following two weeks.
The approach against Tennessee, Dungy said, will be similar:
The Colts will play to win. They have a chance to win a 12th regular-season game for a sixth consecutive season, something no team ever has done, and they have a chance to match the second-longest regular-season winning streak of the Dungy era (nine).
Dungy said they also have the incentive of beating a division opponent, something Dungy considers imant no matter the game's playoff implication.
But at the same time, the Colts are late in a season in which they have played through a series of injuries, with Pro Bowl players such as center Jeff Saturday, safety Bob Sanders, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Joseph Addai all missing significant time with injuries.
"I don't think we'll scale back too much," Dungy said. "The one thing we will do is we'll protect the guys who are a little bit nicked up. The guys who are iffy probably won't play. We definitely want to win. We'd like to get to 12 (victories). We'd like to not have our division teams think they can beat us. In that regard, it will be a big game.
"We'll see how it goes as the week progresses. We'd like to play to win and get ourselves ready for the following week. . . . I know our guys want to play. They'd like to keep performing, so we'll see. It's a little too early to tell yet.
"We'll try to be smart and try to win at the same time."
The Titans, meanwhile, enter the game having clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed and will play at home in the postseason as long as they win. Tennessee clinched the seeding with a 31-14 victory over second-seeded Pittsburgh last Sunday.
"We are going to play a lot of people (against the Colts)," Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher said. "Anybody that is capable of playing is going to play. I don't know how much, how long."
Whereas the Colts will play a week after the regular season, the Titans have a first-round playoff bye before playing host to an AFC Divisional Playoff game January 10-11.
"I want to be out there," Titans quarterback Kerry Collins said of the Colts game. "I want to play. Jeff (Fisher) is going to make that decision. Certainly, I don't want too much time between now and our first playoff game. Obviously, it's probably not going to be for the whole game. But I definitely feel like I would benefit from being out there."
Dungy said well before the Titans' victory in Pittsburgh that Tennessee's playoff scenario in the finale wouldn't much matter when deciding how much Colts players would play. That has been the Colts' stance in past regular-season finales, a stance Dungy said wouldn't change this season.
"We're probably looking at just the things we want to accomplish and how we can win the game," Dungy said. "We'll have to sit down and look at it all and see who can play and what we want to do. I know our guys want to play and they would like to keep performing. They'd like to get that 12th win, so we'll see."