AFC Championship Sunday: Colts will play it by book
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Colts coach Jim Caldwell traded the perfect season for what he hoped would be the perfect ending.
Today, Caldwell and Indianapolis will play it by the book.
Nearly a month after he pulled his starters against the New York Jets, granting Rex Ryan's Christmas wish, the Colts can show everyone they made the right move by redeeming themselves in the AFC championship game today at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We're very eager to get out there," Colts defensive lineman Raheem Brock said. "We've got something to prove. They've got a good running game, a good offensive line, but now we've got to go out and prove ourselves again."
In December, the Colts didn't have to prove anything.
They were rolling along on an NFL record 23-game, regular-season winning streak and had just set a franchise record with their 13th consecutive home victory. They had swept the AFC South Division, beaten seven consecutive teams fighting to make the playoffs, locked up the AFC's top seed and had everyone talking about completing a 19-0 season.
Then Caldwell did the unthinkable. With less than six minutes to go in the third quarter, the Colts leading, 15-10, and six quarters from being 16-0, he yanked quarterback Peyton Manning and the other starters to avoid risking injury.
Fans responded immediately with a cascade of boos in Lucas Oil Stadium. Those were replaced over the next several days by even louder complaints from fans on local radio shows and comments on blogs after the Jets rallied for a 29-15 victory. The decision set off a national debate about whether the Colts did the right thing, and it became so intense that Manning eventually asked fans to forgive the team.
Nobody has forgotten what happened -- least of all the Colts (15-2).
"In history, they'll be remembered as the team that gave us our first loss of 2009," Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson said. "Going out and playing everybody a full four quarters, it'll be a good test for us to see who is really better."
New York (11-7) took advantage of the Colts' help and hasn't lost since.
The Jets knocked off AFC North Division champion Cincinnati in the Giants Stadium finale the following week, clinching a playoff spot. Then they won the wild-card rematch at Cincinnati. Last week, New York upset the Chargers, 17-14, in San Diego, setting up a high-stakes rematch today in Indianapolis.
It's the first time two rookie coaches have met in a conference championship game. And it's not just the Colts who feel they have something to prove.
"If we end up beating them, maybe they need to look at that [pulling the starters]," cornerback Darrelle Revis of Pitt said. "We know that Peyton will be playing in this game the whole time. We have to see him and he has to see us as well for the whole game."
Clearly, the odds are in Indianapolis' favor.
Yes, New York has the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense and top-ranked overall defense, usually a winning postseason formula. But it is just 1-3 all time in conference title games, hasn't been to a Super Bowl in more than four decades and the home team was won the previous three AFC title games.
Mark Sanchez is only the fourth rookie quarterback to get his team in position for a Super Bowl trip, joining Tampa Bay's Shaun King, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore's Joe Flacco. The other three never made it.
First Published January 24, 2010 12:00 am