INDIANAPOLIS - It began as a murmur, swelled into a buzz and finally grew into a full-fledged case of jaw-dropping disbelief from the sellout crowd of 67,222.
Just minutes after the Colts took a five-point lead over the Jets on an 81-yard drive led by Peyton Manning, the Colts' offense trotted onto the field without its leader. As Manning stood on the sideline, arms folded, lips pursed, rookie Curtis Painter took the field.
And just like that, the Colts' 14-0 season was gone, thanks to coach Jim Caldwell's ill-timed and highly unpopular decision.
And just like that, a Jets season considered hopeless just weeks ago suddenly was reborn with a 29-15 victory.
As Caldwell pulled the plug on Manning - and thus on the chance at an unbeaten season, and perhaps momentum heading into the playoffs - the Jets responded with stunning swiftness. On his second pass attempt, Painter was sacked, and the Jets recovered the fumble in the end zone. They took an 18-15 lead, and the game was effectively over right then and there.
And so the Jets' season lives on to see another bizarre late-season run. On a day that a loss would have eliminated them from playoff contention, they received the ultimate gift from the Colts' organization.
Manning's puppy-dog expression on the sideline told you all you needed to know about his feelings on the matter, although he played the good soldier afterward and said he supported the decision. Publicly, anyway.
The feeling here: hated to see it. Hated to see a team that played so brilliantly for 14 games just shut it down as if it were a preseason game. Hated to see a team play it safe in the interests of not getting hurt.
But the Jets will take it, and they're not apologizing for the circumstances.
"I'm not apologizing for jack," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I didn't apologize for losing three last-second games this year, and I'm not making excuses for some of the tough games we've lost."
Besides, Scott said there was no guarantee the Jets wouldn't lose to Painter, even though he had never thrown an NFL regular-season pass.
"Imagine how you'd feel if he came down and beat us," Scott said. "You asking that to a man who saw [the Bills'] Ryan Fitzpatrick come out and get it done against us. I don't care if they brought my nephew out there. I still would have been like, 'We gotta get it done.' "
Now all the Jets need to do is beat the Bengals Sunday night and they're in. Thank you, Jim Caldwell. Said Scott, "I'll send him a Christmas card."
Yesterday's scenario was similar to the Colts pulling the plug on their starters in 2005 after clinching home-field advantage with three games remaining. They went into those playoffs healthy but lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.
After playing hard last week against the Jaguars, you figured the Colts would decide not to take their foot off the gas. And if that had been the case, the Jets might have had to say goodbye to making the playoffs.
"The most important thing is to make certain we're operating on all cylinders for the playoffs," Caldwell said. "That's our focus."
It's an understandably tough spot for Caldwell, but we respectfully disagree with his approach. After all, the Patriots decided to go for it two years ago and became the first team to go 16-0 in a regular season. They got to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Giants, but they didn't lose because they played hard even when the games didn't matter. You could even argue that the Patriots benefited from their late-season momentum.
The one time the Colts did win the Super Bowl was when they didn't have the luxury of resting players late in the season. In 2006, they went all the way despite playing in all four playoff rounds.
We'll find out soon enough if Caldwell's strategy will pay off for the Colts.
As far as the Jets are concerned, it already paid off. They live to see another week. A win over the Bengals, and they're in the tournament.