Hopefully the New Orleans Saints (QB Drew Brees pictured) and the Indianapolis Colts will choose to fight for a perfect season rather than resting players down the stretch
In the 90th season of the National Football League, we are really seeing something incredible happen. No, I am not talking about Chad Ochocinco’s latest touchdown antic. What I am referring to is the incredible feat of the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints reaching the 13-0 undefeated mark together. By virtue of the Colts’ 28-16 win over the Denver Broncos and the Saints’ tough-guy 26-23 win over the scrappy Atlanta Falcons, the two teams have now raised the number of 13-0 teams in league history to seven — joined the 1972 Dolphins, 2007 New England Patriots, 2005 Indianapolis Colts, 1998 Denver Broncos, and 1934 Chicago Bears.
The Saints and Colts are playing at a level never seen before by two teams in the same season. How good are the Saints and Colts? Well consider this, the San Diego Chargers (on a 9-game winning streak and 16-0 in December since 2006) are back page news this season because everyone is concentrating on the league’s two unblemished teams. And as the wins for these two franchises keep piling up week after week, you have to ask, “Is there a chance the NFL could have two undefeated 18-0 teams playing in Super Bowl XLIV at Miami, Florida?”
The Saints once again found just enough in their reserve tanks to put away another pesky foe. Despite having to scratch out a win over the tougher than expected host Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans set a franchise record with their 13th win of the season. Riding to the rescue for the Saints when it mattered most was LB Jonathan Vilma, who made two key defensive plays to seal the win, including a tackle on Falcons RB Jason Snelling on fourth down to end Atlanta’s final drive. Surprisingly, playing without their offensive engine of QB Matt Ryan (toe) and RB Michael Turner (ankle), the Falcons led by backup quarterback Chris Redman (23-34, 303 yds, 1 TD and 1 INT) were able to move the ball effectively against the Saints defense. Atlanta at one point near the end of the first quarter held a 6-3 lead, but the Saints continued to be an indomitable team in 2009. Saints QB Drew Brees (31-40, 296 yards, and 3 TDs) led his team to a 23-9 lead by getting the ball early and often into his offensive speedsters’ hands including scatback Reggie Bush, who showed his explosiveness with 2 receiving touchdowns.
However the Falcons came to fight this week as their playoff chances were, basically, on the line. Redman connected with WR Michael Jenkins for a 50 yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Then Snelling scored on a short run early in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 23 points. Unfortunately for the short-handed Falcons, the Saints would not be denied. Brees led the Saints’ offense on a 16 play, over 8-minute, 63-yard drive that ended with kicker Garret Hartley’s 38-yard eventual game winning field goal. Vilma took over from there producing a fourth quarter interception and the aforementioned 4th down key stop to end the Falcons’ hopes. The Saints have now have scored an NFL-high 466 points with an average of 34.3 points per game average this season. With three games remaining to be played(DAL, TB, and @CAR), it seems a foregone conclusion that the Saints will be joining the NFL’s elite 500-points in-one-season club — 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556) , 1999 St. Louis Rams (526), 2000 St. Louis Rams (540), 2001 St. Louis Rams (503) and 2007 New England Patriots (NFL Record 582 points scored).
The Colts’ win over the Broncos didn’t have close to the amount of “desperation” of the Saints’ win over the Falcons, but it still was a good game. The Colts jumped out to a 21-0 early lead before you knew it as MVP candidate QB Peyton Manning threw three quick touchdown passes. Despite a game effort by the Broncos, especially WR Brandon Marshall (21 receptions for 200 yards and 2 TD’s), to clawback into the game in the 2nd half there never really was a hint of anxiety with a veteran Colts’ squad. Manning (20-42, 220 yds, 4 TDs, and 3 INTs) helped the Colts wrap up AFC homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by making up for some uncharacteristic interceptions with a great game-sealing drive in the 4th quarter. With the Broncos cutting the Colts’ lead to 21-16, Manning led the Colts on a 14-play, 80-yard drive, that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to TE Dallas Clark to seal the game at 28-16.
Even though there were not the nail-biting moments of the Saints-Falcons game, what the Colts’ win at Lucas Oil Stadium did have was records being broken everywhere. With the win, the Colts broke the consecutive wins record with their 22nd straight regular season victory (formerly held by the 2006-2007 New England). With the home victory, the Colts also produced the most team wins (114) in a decade (former record of 113 was formerly held by the San Francisco 49ers from the 1990’s). There were also NFL individual records broken this Sunday in Indy. As Broncos WR Brandon Marshall made an NFL single-game record of 21 receptions (former record of 20 was held by Terrell Owens); Colts TE Dallas Clark broke his own single-season franchise tight end records for receptions (82) and yards (902); and Colts QB Peyton Manning passed Hall of Famer Warren Moon for fourth on the NFL’s yards passing list (49,513 yards to 49,325 yards).
Now that the Colts and Saints have proven that they are in the undefeated “neighborhood” of the 1972 Dolphins, any talk of an undefeated regular season (16-0) and the NFL’s Holy Grail of a perfect season (19-0) are definitely be on the table. I know much like an in-progress perfect game in baseball, it may be considered “Taboo” to talk about a team doing the almost impossible of finishing an entire regular season and playoffs undefeated. But fans and media have started the debate, so it is time to enter the fray. Everyone wants to know if the Colts and Saints, even though they have clinched or are going to clinch all playoff merits (division title, first round bye, and home field), will either rest entering the playoffs or play for “perfection”. It seems overall that the Colts and Saints will have drastically varying opinions on the topic of whether to go for 19-0. The relatively young and brash Saints, driven by their high-octane offense, would love nothing more than to go 16-0 and then 19-0 to put their franchise on the map for the right reasons – only 9 winning seasons since entering the NFL in 1967. After the Saints’ win over the Falcons, Brees said, “It means a lot to us. These kind of years don’t come around very often.” While the veteran Colts’ management, who have been here before in 2005, seem content with resting players and using their expected 34-day layoff period from now until their divisional round home playoff game in mid-January to get their entire team rested and prepared for the playoffs.
Colts President Jim Irsay said after Sunday’s homefield clinching win, “I think obviously you’d love to see two 18-0 teams in the Super Bowl”. He added, “That would be tremendous and unprecedented for the league. But I can only know about us. We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” Colts rookie head coach Jim Caldwell seemed to be teetering somewhere between Irsay’s feelings and going for it. The NFL’s first-time 13-0 rookie head coach said, “We’ll go and take some kind of a [players] poll, but we know where the final decision lies”. Caldwell added, “We will certainly listen to most of the guys, guys that have been around here. So we’ll have a conference on it or something.” However it seems that Irsay and Caldwell should really let their players decide about any rest needed. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m playing until they tell me I can’t play,” center Jeff Saturday insisted after the Colts’ win. The Pro Bowl pivot added, “We have a lot we can work on, improve on and get better at. There’s no reason to stop now.” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said of the pursuit of perfection topic, “Me, personally, I love playing, but that’s not my decision to make.”
Despite history not being on the side of the Saints and Colts – of the previous five 13-0 teams only the 1972 Dolphins and 1998 Broncos ended up winning the Super Bowl – I truly believe that the NFL’s last two undefeated teams owe it to themselves and their fans to try attaining “perfection”. Resting for the playoffs after attaining the #1 seed and securing home field advantage in the postseason doesn’t even guarantee success in the playoffs any longer, so why not go for it. Since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all. The last time two No. 1 seeds faced-off was in 1993 for Super Bowl XXVIII with Buffalo vs. Dallas. Most likely the Saints and Colts will fall short, but why not try and put their names in the record books next to the 1972 Dolphins.
Sure the recent “sting” of the 2007 New England Patriots going 18-0 only to fall short in the Super Bowl is still out there, but most players want the chance to be immortalized. Just listen to the words of Hall of Famer and NFL Network Analyst Michael Irvin when he recently said of striving for perfection, “I would turn in all three Super Bowls and my Hall of Fame bust for one undefeated season.” Those are some serious comments by the Playmaker and I agree 100 percent. My stance on the whole attempting to go undefeated vs. resting for the playoffs debate is that winning a Super Bowl is awesome, but going undefeated through an incredible 19-game grind from September through the Super Bowl is ‘epic’. Think about it the 1972 Dolphins are the only team to reach true perfection in the league’s 90-year history. Every year the champagne corks fly in South Florida for a reason, because the 1972 Dolphins season was so magical and will forever live in NFL lore. As my colleague Marlin Briscoe (a receiver on the 1972 Dolphins) once told me, “No matter where I go or what I do, I will always know in 1972 my team was 17-0”.
NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said during the 2007 Patriots’ 16-0 regular season run, “I know they want to go 16-0. They are going to pull their guys only if they have that luxury (of a lead).” We will see if the Colts and Saints fight all the way through the end of the regular season. “It’s a great, huge topic for analysis and different opinions,” Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. “I don’t think there is a right answer. I think whatever plan Coach Caldwell gives us, that will be the right plan because that’s what he decides, and that’s what we’ll carry out. But either way, you’re opening yourself up for second-guessing.” The Saints remaining games are: Dallas (8-5), Tampa (1-12), and @ Carolina (5-8) – combined records of 14-25. While the Colts remaining games are @ Jacksonville (7-6) – Thursday Night Football, NY Jets (7-6), and @ Buffalo (5-8) – combined record of 19-20.
My “gut” feeling is the Colts will rest players after their game Thursday Night against the Jaguars and the Saints, who have been in some close games lately – will try through all 16 games to chase the 1972 Dolphins’ legacy.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)
Filed under: 2009 NFL Season, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, NFL Undefeated Season, Peyton Manning, Rest vs Going for Perfection | Tagged: 16-0 Regular Season, 2009 NFL Season, Drew Brees, Football, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, NFL, NFL Perfect Seasons, Peyton Manning, Rest vs Going for Perfection, Sports |