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Colts face great debate over pulling starters

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Colts coach Jim Caldwell will not second-guess the decision to rest his starters Sunday.

He’ll let everybody else do it for him.

One day after Indianapolis pulled the plug on its perfect season by sitting Peyton Manning and others with 5:36 left in the third quarter of a 15-10 game, the great debate raged in Indianapolis.

NFL purists expressed disappointment that the Colts sidestepped their shot at perfection. Other analysts suggested the Colts had an obligation to play it straight, and hometown fans expressed their anger with strong critiques on local radio shows.

None of it fazed Caldwell.

“I’m one of those guys, it’s probably my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, I can focus in, I can narrow my scope, and once you make a decision you have to live with it,” he said. “Certainly you weigh all the options before. You take a look at all the things that could occur, but once that decision is done you just keep moving.”

Indy fans aren’t ready to move on just yet.

After celebrating record after record during an unprecedented 23-game winning streak and feeling like they had a personal stake in the pursuit of perfection, they showered Lucas Oil Stadium with boos over the final 20 minutes Sunday. Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne joked to a local television station that Indy might be the first 14-1 team to get booed at home.

In time, fans will likely calm down, and if the Colts win the Super Bowl, all will be forgiven.

“Ultimately, what matters the most is what happens in the postseason,” Denver coach Josh McDaniels said. “So, I think their season is going to be determined by what they do once the playoffs start, not what happened yesterday.”

The controversy has stoked passions among Indy sports fans and on the national stage unlike anything this community has seen since the firing of Bob Knight in 2000 or The Brawl in Detroit in 2004.

Yes, everybody has an opinion, but the only ones that really matter are voiced in the locker room — and they support Caldwell.

“You get people who think you should have gone for it and people who think we did a disservice to the NFL by not playing our guys,” said left tackle Charlie Johnson, who was deactivated for Sunday’s game because of a foot injury. “But I think you have to look at the decisions coach Caldwell has made up to this point and trust him.”

The decision also could have ramifications on the playoff race.

The Jets now have control, thanks to Sunday’s victory, and teams such as Pittsburgh or Houston could end up missing the postseason because the Colts rested key players.

“Obviously I would have loved to have seen them win that game,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “But for us it really doesn’t matter. We have to worry about taking care of our business. … They’ve got to do what they think they got to do. But we’ve got to worry about ourselves.”

Caldwell and team president Bill Polian, the architect of the Colts, insist they did what was best for the team. Their goal, Polian and Caldwell continue to insist, is to win the Super Bowl — not go 16-0. And the best way to accomplish that, they believe, is to be healthy.

So they sat the starters for the final 20 minutes, allowing the Jets to rally for a 29-15 victory. They’re likely to sit even longer this weekend in Buffalo.

“The perfect season was never an issue with us,” Polian said after the game. “We’ve said it time and time and time again. It’s somebody else’s issue, but not ours. That was of no concern. Football logic has to come into play, and that logic is it makes no sense to have guys out there with the potential for injuries.”

Fans didn’t buy Polian’s contention.

Callers to radio shows repeatedly questioned Indy’s tack. Some asked for refunds. Others described Polian as “arrogant” and one fan said the team “spit in our face.” One talk show host read an e-mail on the air that said the Colts didn’t lose Sunday’s game, they forfeited it, and many brought up the Colts’ previous postseason failures.

In three of the last four years, Indianapolis has not won a playoff game. The other time, the Colts won the Lombardi Trophy.

It’s a tricky question.

Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who played on the perfect Patriots in 2007, and Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who had the last team to lose a game in 2008, believe organizations have to make the decision that is best for them, even though Fisher said he would play his starters if he were 14-0.

So will Caldwell’s decision be worth it? Maybe.

“I think everybody really had the sense that if they played their players they would win the next two games. They didn’t,” Fisher said. “But I think we have to wait and see and then go back and ask yourself that question. Just wait and see what happens in the playoffs.”

Associated Press sports writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., Josh Dubow in Oakland, Calif., Kristie Rieken in Houston and Pat Graham in Denver also contributed to this story.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, left, and coach Jim Caldwell watch from the sideline as backup quarterback Curtis Painter took over in the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009. The New York Jets defeated the Colts 29-15. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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