Jim Caldwell wouldn’t change a thing about his late-season decisions.
He tossed away a chance at a perfect season by pulling Colts starters in the third quarter against the Jets. On Sunday, in a Buffalo snowstorm, he yanked most of Indianapolis’ key contributors after three series.
The reason: Staying healthy for a Super Bowl run was more important to the Colts than going 16-0.
So on a day other playoff teams, notably Arizona, Cincinnati, Green Bay and New England, were contending with new injury concerns, Caldwell and the Colts were resting comfortably at home.
“We are right where we want to be,” Caldwell said Monday. “I think if anybody would have said, ‘Come Jan. 4 this would be your station in life in terms of your record for the team,’ we’d all feel pretty good about that. I think the health of our team is trending in the right direction.”
A week ago, Caldwell’s decision created a national controversy and upset some Colts fans.
Outsiders contended Indy (14-2) should have played for history, extended its NFL records for consecutive regular-season wins and most wins in a decade even as Caldwell and team president Bill Polian insisted the primary goal was winning the Super Bowl and not pursuing perfection.
Over the weekend, commissioner Roger Goodell jumped into the discussion, too, suggesting the league would consider providing incentives for teams that continue to play their starters.
Following Sunday’s 30-7 loss, three-time league MVP Peyton Manning extended an olive branch to the fans.
“I just want to say to our fans how much we are going to need them the next two weekends,” he said. “They have been great for us all year, unbelievably passionate and supportive of us and the only way we are going to be able to win in two weeks is if everyone is in there together. The fans are going to have to be there for us. So I hope they forgive what happened last weekend and we can all move on together.”
Even critics may be having second thoughts about questioning the Colts’ strategy now.
New England, which was playing for the No. 3 seed Sunday in Houston, may have to play without NFL receiving leader Wes Welker, who was carted off the field with a left leg injury Sunday.
Green Bay and Arizona, which had already clinched playoff spots and were also playing for seeds Sunday, both lost Pro Bowlers in the game. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson hurt his shoulder, though he is expected to play in this weekend’s rematch.
Arizona lost cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with a bruised left kneecap and defensive end Calais Campbell with a broken left thumb. Coach Ken Whisenhunt is hopeful both will play this weekend, though there are greater concerns about receiver Boldin, who sprained his left ankle.
Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco bruised his left knee after slipping in pregame warmups and was to have precautionary tests Monday.
“You hate to see anybody get hurt,” Caldwell said. “He’s a great player and an extremely productive guy for their team. No one gains anything from that kind of loss.”
Which is precisely why Indy played it safe. Caldwell said it appears the Colts finished their final two games without any notable injuries and those who sat out the last two weeks should all be ready to go for the playoffs. That list includes names such as left tackle Charlie Johnson, Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis and linebacker Clint Session.
Could the decision backfire, though?
Indy now enters the playoffs on a two-game losing streak and still has not won a postseason game since beating Chicago in the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.
Plus, Indy has had first-round byes three times since 1999 and lost its first playoff game each time.
Caldwell believes this time will be different.
Coaches will spend the week preparing mock game plans for each of Indy’s three potential opponents — Cincinnati, Baltimore and the New York Jets. The Colts have already visited Baltimore and hosted the Jets, and they faced the Bengals in the preseason finale.
The way Caldwell sees it, Indy is in the perfect position: Rested, healthy and ready to make a playoff run.
“We are right where we want to be,” he said. “Every single week we’ve prepared for an opponent, our team has been excited about the opportunity and performed well,” he said. “That’s what we hang our hat on. You have to play well because there is finality to the playoffs.”
© 2010 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.