INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Caldwell traded the perfect season for what he hoped would be the perfect ending.
On Sunday, Caldwell and Indianapolis will play it by the book.
Nearly a month after the Colts coach 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.
“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, beaten seven straight 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 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 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 Sunday’s high-stakes rematch in Indy.
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 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 Indy’s 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 last 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, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. The other three never made it.
The Colts, meanwhile, have plenty of postseason experience.
They are 5-2 in their last seven home playoff games and still have most of their key cogs from the title run they made four years ago. Those on the list include Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne, Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark and, of course, Manning, the four-time MVP.
“This is a team that has been here, been to the Super Bowl, and has a lot of experience,” Revis said. “We are new to this, we have a young team. One thing about us is that we work hard and we are very competitive, and I think that will give us the edge.”
But Ryan knows how little the odds really mean, especially in this series.
His father, Buddy, was part of the Jets coaching staff back in January 1969 when they pulled the most significant upset in Super Bowl history, beating the heavily favored Colts 16-7 and laying the groundwork for the NFL-AFL merger.
Back then, nobody thought the Jets could win, either. The brash funnyman sees similarities to Sunday’s opportunity.
“Yeah, we’ve got a puncher’s chance like George Foreman would have a puncher’s chance,” Ryan said. “That’s how I look at it. We don’t punch just like anybody. We punch like George Foreman.”
As Manning &Co. found out last month when they failed to deliver a quick knockout punch against New York.
Now they’ll face Ryan’s defense again, a unit Manning has been successful against. In the last five games against Ryan’s defenses, Manning has thrown for 1,136 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions, winning four times by more than a touchdown.
The only loss in that stretch? The game Manning and his teammates didn’t finish.
And the one they’ll have a chance to rectify Sunday.
“The score was definitely pretty much an even score,” Freeney said, recalling last month’s loss. “Obviously, the starters didn’t finish the game. They ended up winning the game, and that was good for them. That helped them get into the playoffs, but this is a new game.”