Watered-down Colts to determine Denver's playoff future

Thursday, December 30th 2004, 8:26 pm
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ Quick, name Peyton Manning's backup for the Indianapolis Colts.

Give up?

He is rookie Jim Sorgi, he has thrown four career passes and there's a good chance his performance in the regular-season finale will have a big effect on whether the Denver Broncos make it to the playoffs.

Indianapolis meets Denver on Sunday in a game that means nothing for the Colts (12-3), who are locked into the third seed in the AFC, and everything for the Broncos (9-6), who need a win to make the playoffs.

Colts coach Tony Dungy said his goal, as always, is to win the game and keep everyone sharp for the playoffs. But he also said he doesn't plan on playing Manning and the starters for the entire 60 minutes.

``Every situation is different,'' Dungy said. ``It's always better when you can play and continue to play well and get the momentum and feel good in what you do. But obviously when Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt or Terrell Owens gets hurt, people say you shouldn't play your guys. There's something to that.''

Something of an ethical debate is ongoing around the league late this season as six division winners _ Philadelphia, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England, San Diego and Indianapolis _ enter the final week with nothing to play for.

Meanwhile, Buffalo, Baltimore, Jacksonville and the Jets _ to name a few _ have a lot riding on games involving these teams with nothing on the line.

Do the Colts owe it to the other teams to play their starters the whole game? Or should they do what's best for them?

``I've been getting calls from guys on other teams saying, 'You've got to beat Denver,''' Colts tight end Marcus Pollard said. ``But we've got to do what's best for our team. Ultimately, it comes down to what Tony says. Our focus is to win the game; that's our first objective, winning the game.''

There are no ulterior motives this week for the Broncos, who are 8 1/2-point favorites in large part because they have all the incentive and Indy has none. A win and Denver is in, with a rematch at Indy or a game at San Diego on tap for next week in the playoffs. A loss and the Broncos would need Baltimore, Jacksonville and Buffalo all to lose to earn the final wild-card spot.

``I'm preparing for Peyton and every starter they have,'' said Denver cornerback Champ Bailey. ``If you're not preparing for Peyton, you might as well stay in the locker room.''

The last time the Broncos played Manning, they probably wished they'd stayed in the locker room. It was in last year's playoffs. Manning threw for 377 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-10 pasting of the Broncos that led them to trade Clinton Portis for Bailey in hopes of shoring up a susceptible secondary.

This game might be the definitive test on the trade _ at least as long as Manning is on the field.

Last week, Manning threw touchdown pass No. 49 to break Dan Marino's single-season record. That, plus the possible rematch with the Broncos next week, are two more reasons for him to stay on the sideline and show as little as possible.

Of course, 50 is a nice, round number. In keeping with the team-first attitude he's had all year, Manning said he hasn't really thought about it much.

``The best thing we've done all year, especially once people started talking about it, is just been able to win games and try to get our team in the end zone, whether it's throwing touchdowns or handing off,'' Manning said.

In addition to going for No. 50, Manning is almost assured of wrapping up the single-season passer rating record. He comes in with a 121.4 rating and he would need to go 0-for-20 with five interceptions to fall behind Steve Young's record of 112.8.

If Dungy is true to his word, Manning probably won't throw that many times.

That would open the door for Sorgi, a sixth-round draft pick from Wisconsin, who is still in search of touchdown pass No. 1.

``Coach will make that decision,'' Sorgi said. ``It would be nice to get that 13th win for him ... 13-3 would be a heck of a mark. If the starters play a series or a quarter and a half, we have to be ready to play and I hope to get some time and do well.''