Monday, January 14, 2008

Colts Will be Well Rested When They Watch the AFC Championship Game

When the Indianapolis Colts rested most of their starters and lost the regular season finale to the Tennessee Titans, I noted that this strategy had backfired on Colts' Coach Tony Dungy in 2005, when Indianapolis went into rest mode, closing the regular season by losing one game and barely winning another before being upset at home in the playoffs after a bye week. Sure enough, the same thing happened to the Colts this time around as the San Diego Chargers upset the defending Super Bowl champions 28-24 to advance to the AFC Championship Game. How much impact did resting have on the Colts? Their defense gave up more points and more yards versus the Chargers than they did in any of the 16 regular season games; their offense amassed a lot of yards but converted just 3 of 11 third downs, committed three turnovers and did not display much balance, gaining 402 passing yards but just 44 rushing yards. It is not clear whether or not Marvin Harrison was healthy enough to play against the Titans but if he was and the Colts simply rested him for the Chargers game that turned out to be a mistake, too; he fumbled the first time that he touched the ball and was not even on the field during the Colts' final possessions. I don't know if Harrison's subpar performance stemmed simply from rust or if he really is not healthy yet. However, the Colts may have been better served either using him in the Titans game or shutting him down for this year, because he contributed nothing against the Chargers and his fumble deep in Chargers' territory almost certainly took points off of the board.

Above and beyond the statistics, I object to the idea that certain games don't matter. If the Titans game truly did not matter, then the Colts should simply have forfeited it and not paid a game check to any of their players. By the way, a couple things should be clarified about how the Colts-Titans game affected the race between the Titans and the Browns for the final Wild Card berth. It is true that the Colts had no obligation to go out of their way to help either team; the real problem here is that the Colts handled this situation in such an egregious manner--keeping their top players in the game until the precise moment when certain individual statistical milestones were reached and then pulling them out--that they turned a regular season game into a glorified preseason game. That ripped off anyone who bought a ticket--and seems to have had the opposite of the intended effect by also sabotaging their first playoff game. Furthermore, while it is undeniable that the Browns could have earned a playoff berth on their own simply by beating a bad Bengals team the week before, it is also undeniable that the Browns won 10 games by playing against teams that gave their all. The Titans won nine games by playing against teams that gave their all and one game against the Colts' bench players. Rather than watching the Colts mail it in, I would have preferred to see a game between the Browns and the Titans.

The New England Patriots were criticized earlier in the season for allegedly running up the score but their approach is that every time they have the ball they are trying to score and every time the opposing team has the ball they are trying to stop them from scoring. Speaking of the Patriots, in the last week of the season they played the New York Giants in a game that was "meaningless" for both teams in terms of playoff seedings, although the game had obvious historical significance because the Patriots were trying to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. The Giants played their starters throughout the contest and, even though they lost to the Patriots, they used that performance to build momentum for their current playoff run, which includes road victories against Tampa Bay last week and Dallas on Sunday. While the Colts executed poorly against the Chargers, the Giants had no turnovers against the Cowboys and executed a flawless two minute drill to score an important touchdown just before halftime en route to a 21-17 win. No one can say for sure how much it hurt the Colts to rest players or how much it helped the Giants to fight so valiantly against the Patriots in a "meaningless game"--but it is wrong for a team to think for one minute that certain games don't matter and/or that it is possible to turn off one's focus for one week and then turn it back on for another week.

In the coming days and weeks, you will hear and read a lot of overheated nonsense about the Mexican vacation that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo took during the bye week but the big story of this year's Divisional Playoffs is the vacation that the defending champion Colts took during the final week of the regular season--and perhaps the second biggest story is the vacation that the Giants refused to take during the final week of the regular season.

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