Peyton Manning ducked his head, tucked his frigid fingers inside his hand warmer and trudged back to the sideline one final time. In three series, he came and left. A cameo in Indianapolis' two-week calamity.
The result Sunday was a 30-7 spanking to an inferior team. The Colts aren't flinching. Like years past, Indianapolis chose to rest starters for the postseason. Only this year, it came with a tint of controversy. With a shot at perfection last week against the New York Jets, the Colts waved the white flag. Surrendered in the face of history.
So now, the Colts stumble into the playoffs. Losers of two straight. Manning isn't panicking.
"You have to know the circumstances," Manning said. "We have won a lot of games this year, we have done a lot of good things…We feel though we would not have lost those two games had we played everyone."
Thus, no one was reaching for fire alarm after Sunday's beat-down to Buffalo.
More than anything, players are relieved they can finally leave last week behind them. Head coach Jim Caldwell's decision to yank his starters with the lead in the second half against the New York Jets last week broke the dam on nationwide criticism. On the sideline, Manning and others appeared irritated. Fans booed. And even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out. Goodell said the league will consider offering incentives to teams playing late-season games to discourage them from sitting their starters.
To somehow regroup amid the tumult, Manning spoke to the team this past week. Hard to believe the best team in the league needed to regroup, but that's exactly what happened.
Center Jeff Saturday said the speech was refreshing — the perfect man-in-the-mirror moment the team needed.
"You don't want the media or anybody else telling you what your team is or isn't," Saturday said. "You don't ever want those guys trying to define you. It became kind of a rallying cry for the media I guess for a week. We just had to make sure young guys stay focused on the task at hand. We have our playoff spot. We have to make the best of it."
Before a January preseason game broke out at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Manning punched in a typical performance — 14-of-18 for 95 yards in three series. He hit Austin Collie for a 15-yard strike on third down with Aaron Schobel milliseconds from tomahawking his throwing hand. He looked sharp. He looked immune to the snow-globe conditions. In MVP form. With 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns, Manning could easily become the first player ever to win four MVP awards.
Unlike several of his gut-wrenching comebacks this season, Sunday's game featured no drama. For the Colts, it was a nuisance more than anything. Caldwell danced around that much afterward.
"We really wanted to make sure we got some sharpness on both sides of the ball," Caldwell said. "I think there's meaning to every game and some value in every game you play."
To angry Indy fans, this is history painfully repeating itself. Several times this decade, the Colts rested Manning with homefield wrapped up only to lose in the playoffs. Particularly 2005. The Colts rolled to 13-0, dropped two of three and were stunned by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round.
Rust was evident. A virtual three-week bye seemed to hurt the once-untouchable Colts.
The difference this year? These Colts are hardly frontrunners, climbing out of seven fourth-quarter deficits this season. From "Fourth-and-2" to Manning's game-winning heave to Reggie Wayne three weeks ago in Jacksonville, Indy has faced adversity on a weekly basis.
To the burly center Saturday, such resiliency must mean something. He credits his embattled coach.
"I think we do have a good attitude to keep battling, keep making plays and let's see what it looks like at the end. I think Coach Caldwell does a really good job of, ‘Let's play the whole game, see where it shakes down. Play the whole season, see where we shake out.'
"Instead of looking at every little thing as a milestone or goal."
Apparently. The Colts bypassed a shot at the ultimate "milestone" — NFL immortality. They shrugged at a 19-0 season, something New England refused to do two years ago. At least now, the questions stop. No longer do the Colts need to talk about an undefeated season.
Indy soldiers into the postseason with one thing on its mind.
"What happened in the Jets game is going to have nothing to do in what is going to happen in our first playoff game," Manning said. "If we win it is because we played better that day. If we don't win it's because we didn't play better. I don't see that being a factor. It truly is over."
(Article originally appeared in the Olean Times Herald.)-------------------------------------------------
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