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Colts' Dungy unsure if he'll rest starters

INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 6, 2005) -- Tony Dungy treats the mounting questions like he's a politician.

Everyone wants to know how the Indianapolis Colts cope with the pressure of staying perfect one more week. Dungy usually responds with a tactful touch.

But there is one question that makes the Colts' coach groan: Will he continue playing starters if the Colts clinch the AFC South title, a first-round bye and home-field advantage this weekend?

"I don't think too far ahead, but I do everything I can to win," he said with a chuckle. "If we're fortunate enough to win, I'll do what I do every week. I'll ask for some wisdom from the Lord and pray that they don't get hurt."

Playing it safe might be the only remaining obstacle between the Colts and a perfect season.

At 12-0, they've already secured a playoff spot. A win at Jacksonville on Dec. 11 would give them the division title, a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the playoffs -- making their game in Seattle on Dec. 24 their final one on the road.

So far the Colts have been fortunate. With a month left in the regular season, the only significant injuries have been to their safeties, though two of their top three seem to be healthy each week.

With two-time MVP Peyton Manning, two-time rushing champ Edgerrin James and record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison again playing at Pro Bowl levels and others like receiver Reggie Wayne and tight ends Dallas Clark and Bryan Fletcher continuing to emerge, the Colts offense seems virtually unstoppable. They lead the NFL in scoring and are averaging more than 35 points over the past nine games.

The defense has been impressive, too. The Colts have allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL (162) and lead the league in sacks (39).

But as well as they have played, those who know the league best understand the Colts must stay injury-free to make a Super Bowl run.

"If they continue to stay healthy, with what they do on offense and with the speed they have on defense, they're going to have a chance," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said after his team lost 35-3 in Indianapolis on Dec. 4.

What's Dungy to do?

If tries to go for the perfect record and a player like Manning or defensive end Dwight Freeney gets hurt, he'll forever be second-guessed. But the same thing could happen if he decides against a chance at an undefeated season -- a mark held by the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

It's a tough call, especially since Manning, James, Harrison and Wayne recoil at the thought of missing practice time -- let alone sitting out games.

"Those guys want to play, and they want to play all the time," Dungy said. "We don't let them vote, but we will take into consideration how they feel."

Dungy has said he will do what he's done in the past.

A year ago, with the Colts locked into a No. 3 seed and a likely first-round playoff game against Denver, Dungy played Manning and James for one series in the last regular-season game and benched most of his starters for the second half.

In that case, the Colts didn't have a bye.

Sitting out starters for the final two or three games of the season, with a likely bye, poses another risk: his top players could come into the playoffs rusty after not seeing significant action for nearly a month. That's what happened to the Denver Broncos almost a decade ago when they lost in the divisional round to Jacksonville after earning the AFC's top seed.

"There's not that many guys who have been in this situation," Dungy said. "The one guy I know is Mike Shanahan, and I don't think he'll tell me at this point. I think you have to analyze the situation and do what's best for your team."

Shanahan's Broncos (9-3) are tied with Cincinnati and Jacksonville for the second-best record in the AFC.

With records, potential performance bonuses and history all at stake, Dungy would rather wait to make up his mind.

Then, he'll have to make that delicate decision.

"To be honest, I don't know how I'll handle it," he said. "You never really know 'til you get there."

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