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Is defeat a blessing in disguise for the Colts?

With just one week remaining in the NFL regular season, the ’72 Miami Dolphins can breathe easy and – as has become traditional for the surviving members of the league’s sole ‘perfect’ team at the fall of the last unbeaten side every season – pop the celebratory champagne corks.

At least as far as 2009 is concerned, nobody’s perfect any more. But, for the Indianapolis Colts, that may turn out to be a good thing.

Until a week ago, the tantalising prospect of not one but two unbeaten teams duking it out in the Super Bowl – in, of all places, Miami – on February 7 remained very much a possibility. But then the New Orleans Saints stumbled to a 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and followed that up last night with a 20-17 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who recorded only their third win all season.

So now 13-0 has turned into 13-2 for the Saints. And what was shaping up to be a marquee season – and potentially a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl – led by the NFL’s most potent offense is now plagued by doubt. Are the Saints losing form as we approach the business end of the season? Will the pressure of carrying the hopes of a city still struggling from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina prove too great?

The same question marks cannot be said to hang over Indianapolis. Even if last night’s 29-15 defeat to the New York Jets – who scored the game’s last 19 points in erasing a 15-10 third quarter deficit – dashed any hopes of a perfect season, the result raises no major doubts about the Colts’ momentum, coming as it did with quarterback Peyton Manning and other key starters sitting out the second half.

After all, the primary objective remains the Super Bowl, and with home field advantage in the playoffs already secured, there was little left to play for other than the mythical 19-0 season and the sometimes-voiced notion that a winning team should never let up.

But what if Manning or, say, running back Joseph Addai had been injured in what was effectively a meaningless game? Is the quest for perfection really worth the risk?

And, I would argue, a single defeat can even be healthy for the soul. It is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, and it also relieves the additional pressure of striving for the perfect season (as if pursuing a Super Bowl win isn’t enough already).

Just ask the New England Patriots, who marched through the 2007 season with a 16-0 record, and from there to a Super Bowl against the New York Giants which many considered to be not so much a competitive game as a coronation. It was a game in which the Giants played out of their skins and the much vaunted Patriots coughed, spluttered and were eventually defeated, as if choking under the weight of expectation, both their own and that of a live audience of hundreds of millions.

There are many reasons why the Patriots lost that game. The pressure of emulating the ’72 Dolphins was almost certainly a contributing factor. But so too was a dilution of focus. Instead of conserving their effort at the end of the regular season, they poured considerable energy into pursuing individual records for quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss, which went right down to the final regular season game – against, of all teams, the Giants. In pursuing individual and team glory, did the Patriots show too much of their gameplan to the Giants, an act of vanity which would later cost them in the Super Bowl? It’s hard to tell, but it certainly wouldn’t have helped their cause.

Interestingly, there is a possibility that the Jets will face the Colts in the playoffs. Unlike the Giants against the Patriots, they will have learned very little about Indianapolis last night.

So, the Colts are not chasing the end of the rainbow any more. They won’t care about sacrificing the perfect season if it means they win the Super Bowl. It’s a lesson which New England learned the hard way; Indianapolis may well benefit from maintaining their tunnel vision and playing the long game. Only time will tell.

There are many reasons why the Indianapolis Colts may fail to convert near-perfection into a Super Bowl win (not least the fact they have statistically the least productive running game in the entire NFL). But the vainglorious pursuit of the perfect 19-0 season will not be one of them.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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