When sledge-jawed Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher started the second half of Monday night's game with an onside kick—despite being down only 16-7 against the undefeated Colts—it was less inspired whimsy than futile surrender. Cowher might as well have waved a Terrible Towel in surrender. Or brought in Tommy Maddox.
Now that the Colts spent November ransacking their three biggest AFC rivals, home-field advantage and the Super Bowl seem inevitable. The only question left is whether coach Tony Dungy will begin resting his starters, likely giving up the chance for a 16-0 regular season in favor of a better shot at his first championship ring. The consensus seems to be a grudging, hangdog yes, because nothing is more important than a Super Bowl victory.
Dungy has recently said as much, as have his players. "We're not worrying about it, man," receiver Reggie Wayne told the press. "We really do take it one game at a time. Our goal around here is to get to the big dance. If we get [the perfect season], great. But if we lose a game, we're still in it. It doesn't hurt us."
Bah. I say forget the Super Bowl and go for the perfect season.
Winning the Super Bowl is overrated. It's probably inspiring if you're a football player, or if you're Tony Dungy—who got fired by the Bucs just in time to watch golden boy John Gruden lead them to a title. But for the rest of us, it's just a string of X's and I's.
We've all been spoiled by the New England Patriots, an appealingly modest team with a flair for the dramatic. The Pats have made football fans forget how uninteresting a champion can be. Remember the Ravens and Buccaneers? They won their titles because no other teams were really up for it. I remember watching the Bucs outlasting a sloppy Raiders offense, Brad Johnson hoisting the trophy, and wondering: What's on 60 Minutes tonight?
Each year, when the last undefeated team bites it, the TV guys announce that the 1972 Miami Dolphins—the NFL's last undefeated team—are popping open the bubbly and toasting their incomparable team's singularity. This is, in fact, an urban myth, but the fact that it gets repeated year after year says a lot about our shared fascination with the rare and the extraordinary. The undefeated season has been, for 30-plus years, that star that's just out of grasp of our football heroes. No one gets together to pour one out for the 2001 Ravens.
The last college basketball team to go undefeated through the regular season and the NCAA tournament—the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers—is held in similarly high regard. For better or for worse, this is the team that bestowed the Bobby Knight legend upon the world. During North Carolina's run to the title last year, talk of star forward Sean May was incomplete without a cutaway to his father, Scott, one of the leaders of that Hoosier team. Scott May's NBA career was undistinguished. But even in the midst of his own championship season, Sean understood the resonance of the '76 Hoosiers: "I'll always be Scott May's son."
The Hoosiers' reputation was almost stolen by the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, a team whose legend was secured after a dominant, undefeated regular season. Even their Final Four loss to eventual champions Duke has not dimmed the team's reputation as one of the best in college history. My parents were chagrined to see me, a nerdy 10-year-old, sporting a UNLV sweatshirt during the historic run—an unsolicited but treasured gift from my rakish uncle. Rather than bear the colors of the academically respectable Duke Blue Devils, I wore the provocative red of a team that would be banned from the tournament the next year for all manner of sleaze. Epater le bourgeois? No, just the allure of a perfect season. I still have the sweatshirt.
Whether perfection has a similar hold on Dungy will become clear with the Colts' Week 16 game against Seattle. Assuming they stay undefeated until then, they'll be facing the NFC's best team with home-field advantage assured and only pride and perfection on the line. Furthermore, the game will be in Seattle, in front of the loudest fans in football. Last week, the Giants committed 11 false starts at Qwest Field, a testament to the Seahawks' resurgent fan base, which should prove a formidable opponent for the audible-addicted Peyton Manning. Since the Colts' playoff games will most likely be at home—save for the Super Bowl, which is filled by a subdued horde of nonpartisan VIPs—a road game against the Seahawks might be Indy's most demanding, entertaining test.
It would be a shame if the Colts didn't even try—16-0 is no more arbitrary a goal than winning the Super Bowl. It's all a matter of how much the team, the league, and the fans invest in each outcome—I think most people care far more about an undefeated season, but won't admit it because they're too willing to cling to the usual sports clichés. Should the Colts take a powder, rest their stars, and go on to stomp their playoff opponents, they'll just be a very good team. If they can hold on through Week 17, though, they'll be perfect.