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Forget 16-0 -- The Colts Need to be Punished for Unsportsmanlike Conduct

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The good people of Indianapolis appear disconsolate - crestfallen even - over Jim Caldwell and Bill Polian's decision to remove all the team's players who are good at football and replace them with players who are good at knitting. Of course, most of us don't live in Indianapolis.

Thank God.

It's fun to knock places like Indianapolis, where I've never actually been. It's like my dad used to say: If you can't criticize from a place of profound ignorance, why criticize at all?

Despite not caring even a little whether the Colts go 16-0, 15-1 or 4-12 with Mike Pagel under center, the decision to pull Peyton Manning and the rest of those starters was outrageous, unsportsmanlike and dangerous (not traveling to Yemen dangerous, but dangerous for the NFL).

The Colts pulled their starters against the New York Jets, who in week 16 were one of 73 AFC teams competing for two wild card spots. By conceding the game to the Jets - and make no mistake, playing Curtis Painter and friends against a top flight NFL defense is a concession - the Colts gave the Jets the game and a huge advantage in the wild card race. After the game, one the Jets likely would have lost had the Colts played it honorably, the Jets suddenly and shockingly controlled their own situation. Now, to reach the playoffs, all the Jets must do is beat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday in a game where - unbelievably - the Bengals may also pull their starters to rest for the playoffs. (By the way, on a side note, any sentence including the words "Bengals" and "playoffs" will always make me laugh).

Among the other AFC wild card hopefuls competing with the Jets for the playoffs, the Colts earlier in the season beat Houston twice, Jacksonville twice, Miami once, Baltimore once and Denver once. It is completely unfair to those teams (and to Pittsburgh) for the Colts to lie down and quit. Whether the Colts go 16-0 or not is fodder for sports talk radio. But the integrity of competition is a serious issue for the NFL.

These teams - all 31 (32 if you count the Redskins as a team) - have an obligation, an understood contract, to play these games straight up when the playoffs are at stake. If the San Diego Chargers, locked in as the AFC's #2 seed, want to rest their starters and roll over for the Washington Redskins, a once proud franchise now soaked in owner Dan Snyder's rare combination of arrogance and ignorance, that's not a problem. But when the opponent is a playoff hopeful like the Jets, playing to win is vital to the sense of athletic fairness that all legitimate leagues need to protect.

The NFL and other leagues correctly treat gambling on games by its players as the greatest sin in sports. They do this because once fans start to doubt the honesty of the action on the field, we could leave for good. If you doubt me, spend one night at a Harness racing track, watch the lead jockey glance over his shoulder, see he's too far ahead and pull back on the reins. You'll never go back. The fix is in. It's like pro wrestling. Or playing on-line blackjack.

But as of now, the NFL is sitting idly by as the league plays its most meaningful games of the season in late December and early January while some of its best teams refuse even to try. The Colts were the lone offender last week, but expect the Bengals to join them this week, which if it happens, would make the Jets a wildly undeserving playoff team.

So how about this? The NFL steps in and appoints a panel comprised of a former coach, a former general manager and two former players. If they determine any team involved in a game against a team vying for the playoffs deliberately gives up (and again, playing Curtis Painter and backs-ups along the offensive and defensive lines is giving up), then penalize the offending team with a the loss of a first round draft choice.

And don't let the decision-makers in Indianapolis and Cincinnati off the hook by claiming they were resting players with injuries. It's week 16 and 17 - everybody is injured. Give my panel real teeth and if three out of four agree, Bam! Strip away a #1 pick.

If this forces stars like Peyton Manning to play and he gets hurt, so be it. It's actually a small price to pay to maintain the integrity of the game and the playoffs.

It's possible fans in Indy wouldn't swallow a Manning injury so easily, but who cares? It's just Indianapolis.

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