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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Colts wrestle with resting or playing starters

Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts gives

Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts gives instructions to his team at the line of scrimmage against the Denver Broncos. (December 13, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

With the Colts' unbeaten season on the line heading into tonight's game against the Jaguars, and continued questions about whether 13-0 Indianapolis should rest its starters in advance of the playoffs, Jay Feely thinks he has the solution.

"I think they should play at full strength against Jacksonville," the Jets kicker said of the Colts. "And then they should start resting players beginning next week."

Good one.

Feely has a self-serving reason for his advice. After all, the Jets are in competition with the Jaguars for a wild-card playoff spot, and a Colts win against Jacksonville would be a big help for Feely's team. Not only that, but the Jets play the Colts next week in Indianapolis. Thus, Feely's wish to see the Colts take their foot off the pedal in a bid for an unbeaten regular season, just in time for the Jets game. "You don't want a team in your own division in the playoffs," said Feely, referring to the Jaguars. "So the Colts should just try and knock 'em out."

It's uncertain whether Feely will get his wish, but his advice offers a glimpse into the conundrum that is the Colts: How they decide to play their remaining games could have a profound influence not only on whether they go unbeaten for the first time in franchise history, but whether the Jets, Jaguars or perhaps another AFC team like the Dolphins, Ravens or Broncos make the playoffs based on the Colts' strategy.

Several Colts players, including quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne, have expressed a desire to approach the end of their season as they would the beginning: by playing all their starters and trying to win them all.

Rookie coach Jim Caldwell said he's taking things one game at a time, and that the plan for the Jacksonville game is to use his players who are healthy. Just what the word "healthy" means, however, is open to debate. Consider: The Colts put a whopping 29 players on this week's injury report - more than half their 53-man roster. And 10 players, including starting defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, missed practice Tuesday.

If it's up to the players, they take it just like any other game they need to win.

"We want to play," Wayne said. "We all have personal goals and I guarantee you that I'll need all these games to get mine. Yes, we can get vetoed, that's how it is. He [Caldwell] has the ultimate decision, and we can double all of our votes and still get vetoed."

Said Caldwell: "I think all players are exactly the same. They are highly competitive, they love to play and that's why they're here. So we have to look at our team and make certain we stay in rhythm. That's what most important to us."

The feeling here is that Caldwell is clearly allowing himself some wiggle room, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Indianapolis back off in an effort to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Complicating matters further: The Colts' backup to Manning is a rookie named Curtis Painter, who hasn't attempted a pass during a game this season. Veteran backup Jim Sorgi is on injured reserve and out for the season.

Either way, there's no easy solution. If you go for the unbeaten season and see one of your starters get hurt in the process, then what's the point if you've put yourself at a huge disadvantage heading into the playoffs. The ultimate nightmare scenario: If Manning were to get hurt before the playoffs, the Colts' Super Bowl chances would disappear entirely.

But then there's this: The Colts were in an identical spot in 2005, going 13-0 and clinching home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs. They decided to rest key players and cut back the playing time of others - and finished 14-2. But they lost in the divisional round at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers. The next year, the Colts won the Super Bowl and played in all four rounds of the playoffs.

Momentum? The Colts insist that wasn't the case. But the fact remains that three of the last four Super Bowl winners did not enjoy the luxury of a first-round bye, including the 2007 Giants.

"It's a fine line," Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "As a competitor, you want to go out there and play. But the health of your players is more important. If you're struggling to get through games and you're not going to have those players for the playoffs, then what's the point? The goal is to win the Super Bowl."

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