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When winning doesn't matter

The Baltimore Sun

There should be no recriminations for Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy sitting his first string in the first half of Sunday night's game against the Tennessee Titans just because the Cleveland Browns desperately needed the Colts to win.

The Browns' playoff scenario was simple: If the Colts, already sitting comfortably as the AFC's No. 2 seed, beat the Titans, Cleveland would make the postseason.

But it wasn't the Colts' responsibility to get Cleveland into the playoffs - especially since the Browns could have assured that themselves the previous week against the Cincinnati Bengals and failed to do so.

And had Peyton Manning wound up getting bent into a pretzel while playing in a meaningless game, the blame (rightfully so) would have fallen entirely on Dungy. In fact, the Browns and their fans should probably be grateful that Manning played at all.

However, the way Dungy managed his game stood in contrast to the way Tom Coughlin coached the New York Giants in their near-upset of the undefeated New England Patriots on Saturday night. New York has its own NFC playoff game coming up and the Giants' own Manning, Eli, could have just as easily been busted up. As a result, the Giants received well-deserved praise for playing the historic game so earnestly.

As the weekend wore on, what was getting a little annoying was this theme that TV play-by-play announcers and commentators had picked up on - that is, the enormous "integrity" that NFL teams exhibited when they played hard in otherwise meaningless games.

It started with that Patriots-Giants game, and the integrity theme continued through the weekend during the Buffalo Bills-Philadelphia Eagles game. And I'm sure there was praise for the Chicago Bears playing spoiler against the New Orleans Saints and for the Denver Broncos derailing the Minnesota Vikings.

The bottom line is that NFL players and coaches are professionals who are paid to do what they do for 16 games. And each franchise is obligated to approach each game - whether it has playoff implications or as a platform for self-evaluation for next season - in a way that best serves the team. As a result, talk of teams exhibiting extraordinary "integrity" seemed to be merely gilding the lily when it should suffice that professional players and coaches are doing what they're paid to do in a way that delivers fair value to the fans while at the same time employing the common sense that best serves the franchise's interests.

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