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FRONT-RUNNERS EARN RIGHT TO TAKE IT EASY

Peyton Manning says he wants to play, win, keep the momentum churning. He retains haunting memories of 1999, when the Indianapolis Colts mailed in their meaningless regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills and then promptly were ousted from the playoffs. He's against the Colts taking a nonchalant approach again Sunday, when they close the regular season with what, for them, is a valueless game in Denver against the Broncos.

The Las Vegas sports books obviously think Manning's desires won't be fulfilled. The oddsmakers have installed the Broncos as 8 1/2 -point favorites, an absurd spread under any other circumstances. They aren't expecting to see a lot of Manning, and rarely are the number-crunchers caught unaware.

The NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons, four-point dogs against dysfunctional New Orleans last Sunday, were thumped as mildly ailing Michael Vick took the day off. The Philadelphia Eagles, owners of the NFC's best record, were spotted three points at St. Louis on Monday night, played Donovan McNabb for a series and then packed it in.

The repercussions were widespread. The Saints and Rams remain in playoff contention thanks in part to the roundabout cooperation of last week's opponents. Seattle's NFC West title celebration was, at best, postponed. And the integrity police are blowing their whistles over an imagined rule that states a team should use its best players and give maximum effort every time it takes the field.

The integrity police need a reality check. Teams have often seized the opportunity to protect or rest their better players in advance of the playoffs. The initial 16 games constitute Phase One of a two-part series. Once a team has accomplished all it can in Phase One, its focus shifts to Phase Two, the postseason. It is under no obligation to strive to play well on behalf of teams who've performed to a lower level. As always, it's every team for itself.

"It's that team's prerogative what it wants to do," Buffalo Bills tackle Jonas Jennings said this week.

How the Colts approach the Denver game could affect the Bills, who need either the Broncos or Jets to lose in order to have a playoff shot. Deep down, you know the Bills would like to see Manning expand his single-season record for touchdown passes by another three or four. At the same time, they'll feel no slight, no sense of being wronged, if the Colts go into Denver on their tiptoes.

"When you're in a situation that they're in, it's kind of tough to play your starting quarterback because you're not going to move up in the rankings," receiver Eric Moulds said. "I see where the coach is coming from, from that standpoint. That's what you play for all year. The teams with the best record get the best deal."

Meaningless finales can be some of the toughest games for a coach to strategize. Was Andy Reid wrong for pulling McNabb since his Eagles need to reaffirm their offensive identity in the absence of Terrell Owens? Or is he right to protect the cherished asset he retains? Either way, it's his decision. Same with Steelers coach Bill Cowher, whom history suggests won't be tackling this game with anything resembling reckless abandon.

"My feeling is you owe it to yourself," Cowher said. "You worked very hard to create the situation you have. You don't owe it to anybody, to be honest with you. You make your own bed that you lie in. We've been in that situation before. I think back in 2000 we were 9-7, we had to have Minnesota beat Indy, and (the Vikings) were already in the playoffs. That's the situation you put yourself in."

He's right. If the Bills finish 10-6 and fail to make the playoffs, it has nothing to do with the Colts, everything to do with September.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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