INDIANAPOLIS -- It took a month, but the verdict finally is in: The Indianapolis Colts have been vindicated.
So they tanked the end of the season, threw away a chance for perfection, infuriated fans and annoyed opinion makers. Big deal. They're in the Super Bowl, and isn't that what playing this game is all about?
It is for Indianapolis, which reaffirmed its position as the best football team on the planet with Sunday's 30-17 defeat of the New York Jets -- a victory that puts Indianapolis in its second Super Bowl in four years.
Look, I don't know that Indianapolis would be there without resting its starters, but it doesn't matter. The point is this: They plotted a strategy, and the strategy worked.
First, they won their division. Then they gained home-field advantage for the playoffs. Then they rested their starters. Now they're the favorite to win a second Super Bowl with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
You have a problem with that? I don't.
"I think that's pretty much done," linebacker Gary Brackett said of critics who attacked the Colts' plan. "Obviously, we achieved our goal, which is getting to the Super Bowl. Now, our next goal is winning it."
Sounds good to me.
But it didn’t sound so good to Colts’ fans a month ago after the club pulled Peyton Manning and other starters in the second half of a 29-15 loss to the Jets -- a move that put the Jets back in the playoff picture. In fact, the idea went over so poorly that angry callers forced team president Bill Polian into retreat, with Polian under siege on his radio call-in show.
Basically, fans didn't like what the Colts did. More important, they didn't understand it.
Well, they should now.
The fact of the matter is the Colts have the best football team out there ... that is, when they have their key players healthy. So they did what they thought they had to do to get there, and you saw what happened in the conference championship game: After falling behind early, they regained their balance, turned to Manning for direction and obliterated the opposition -- scoring the last 24 points to clinch a return game to Miami.
|Preserving Peyton Manning's health in Week 15 has led to another AFC crown for the Indianapolis Colts. (US Presswire)|
The only games the Colts lost this season were games they chose to throw back. The Jets? They didn't beat them in late December. The Colts lost. Buffalo? The Bills didn't beat them, either. The Colts lost. So the Colts haven't lost to anyone when they put their starters out there, and they ran that string to 16 straight with their last victory.
So they had to come from behind again. That is the hallmark of this club. It produced seven fourth-quarter comeback wins this season, and it waited until the third quarter to go ahead of the Jets. People can talk about how Manning figured out the Jets defense and what happened to New York's overmatched secondary and how life might have been different if Shonn Greene hadn't bowed out at halftime, but let's face facts, people: The Colts won because they were the superior team.
And they won because they have the superior quarterback. Peyton Manning wasn't just good again. He was damn near perfect, throwing for three touchdowns and 377 yards. Dallas Clark didn't have a big game. Neither did Reggie Wayne. But Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie did, and that's what makes this club so formidable.
Cut off one head, and two more emerge to bite you.
"Those guys are tough," said losing coach Rex Ryan. "I mean, they're individually tough. You have Peyton Manning back there pulling the trigger. We tried everything. We tried man [coverage]. We tried zone. We tried you name it. You have to give him credit. He's one heck of a quarterback. We definitely had some issues there."
Anybody that plays these guys has issues because Manning is better than anyone out there. He's smart. He's accurate. And he's patient. So he waits for the right moment to go for the kill shot -- this time waiting until the last drive of the first half -- and then he drops the hammer.
In this case, the big blow was a 46-yard shot to Collie down the middle. Anticipating a blitz, the Colts went to maximum protection -- with Manning looking for a receiver who was double-covered deep. The rest you know: Manning dropped a perfect pass into a tight window, and the Colts suddenly were one play away from turning a 17-6 halftime deficit into a four-point lead.
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"That was huge," said Manning. "That play down the field to Collie is really the play that kind of got us going. From that point on I think we had a good bead on things."
I think so, too. Because from that point the Colts were in control. They ran the ball. They threw the ball. They scored on three of their next four possessions. And they stuffed the league's top-ranked rushing attack. In short, they did what good teams are supposed to do, which is wear down their opponent.
In the end, they put up more yards on the Jets than anyone this season and more points since Gang Green got waxed by New England, 31-14, on Nov. 22. Only four opponents scored 30 or more points on the league's top-ranked defense this year, and no one did it in the last two months.
Until, that is, the Colts came along.
"Would you categorize them as a great team?" someone asked Ryan.
"Yes, I would," he said. "You have some matchup problems with those guys. I think their defense plays good enough. You don't have to be great on defense. It kind of reminds me of the old Cowboys. I mean, that offense carried that team for years. Their defense was decent. You just have to get some stops, and, clearly, we never got enough of them."
Join the club, Rex. The Colts produced 30 or more points seven times this season, or half of their first 14 games. I mention the first 14 because those were the only games Manning finished, and connect the dots. When he plays, they win. When he doesn't, they don't.
Now, you want to tell me he should've played down the stretch so the Colts could've circled the bases and become the second club in three seasons to go 16-0? Forget it. That conversation is over. The Colts were right, and the stone throwers were wrong, and if you still want to debate the issue I have two words for you.
"Do you think you silenced your critics?" winning coach Jim Caldwell was asked.
"No, sir," he said. "I really didn't try to focus on anything of that nature. We weren't out to prove anything. There is no sense of vindication or retribution. All we're concerned about is trying to do the best job for our team -- plain and simple -- and not everybody is going to agree with you on that."
Too bad. The Colts just proved they were right. Plain and simple.